Checkmate raises $27M, adds operations veteran as I-O program gathers pace

First data from Keytruda combination trial are due in the fall.

A new funding round for Checkmate Pharma will fund additional trials of immuno-oncology drug CMP-001, currently paired with Merck's Keytruda in a phase 1b melanoma trial.

The Cambridge, Massachusetts, biotech says it has raised $27 million in a second-round fundraising that will be used to run additional trials of CMP-001 in melanoma, as well as other indications. And that effort will be helped by newly appointed Chief Operating Officer Karen Brennan, who brings more than 30 years of clinical and development experience to Checkmate after stints at Forum Pharma and Millennium.

Privately held Checkmate—led by former Sarepta and RaNA Therapeutics exec Art Krieg—is planning to report the first data from a study of CMP-001 with Keytruda in the fall, hoping to tap into the drive toward combining cancer immunotherapies in order to boost the proportion of patients who can benefit from this type of treatment.

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Checkpoint blockers like Keytruda, Bristol-Myers Squibb's Opdivo and Roche's Tecentriq have achieved remarkable success in some hard-to-treat tumors, stimulating a cancer patient’s immune system to attack the disease. But a sizable proportion of patients either do not respond to these drugs at all, or see their benefits wane with time.

CMP-001 is an oligonucleotide targeting toll-like receptor 9 (TLR9) and is being tested to see if it can help restore the activity of Keytruda in melanoma patients who have stopped responding to the drug. According to the biotech, combining checkpoint inhibitors that release a brake on the immune system with TLR9 drugs that activate cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTLs) could be a good way to circumvent that problem.

An Endpoints report notes that the cash injection—which adds to $20 million raised by the company in a series A 2 years ago—will provide around 18 months of operating cash for CheckMate, and allow it to add about 100 patients to an expansion phase of the phase 1b trial. Studies in a second indication are due to get underway next year.

The latest investment round was led by new investor F-Prime Capital Partners. Partner Ben Auspitz said the firm was "pleased to be … supporting this innovative work to convert cold tumors to hot, advancing the development of combination therapies in oncology."