Ready to eat: Investors fork out $76M for Pheast's cancer therapies

Investors have an appetite for Pheast. The women-led immuno-oncology startup just closed out a $76 million series A funding round, fueling its development of therapies targeting cancer's “don’t eat me” signal.

At the head of the table is Amira Barkal, M.D., Ph.D., principal founder, scientific director and interim CEO of Pheast. Barkal has been instrumental in the company's scientific direction, which aims to bolster innate immune responses to cancer by blocking the signal that certain cancer cells send to ward off the body's immune system.

Led by Arch Venture Partners as well as Catalio Capital Management, an investment firm founded in 2020 and centered on breakthrough biomedical technology, Pheast’s financing round includes investments from Alexandria Real Estate, Risk and Reward and Stanford University's Presidential Venture Fund. 

The preclinical stage company will use the money for R&D that can advance a pipeline of immune checkpoint inhibitors toward the clinic. The funding will also fuel expansion, with aims to double the team—currently around 15 employees—over the next year or so, Barkal told Fierce Biotech.  

Sliced evenly down the middle, half of the scientists at Pheast are women, Barkal said, a ratio the company plans to maintain amid growth. The female leaders and scientific team members are emblematic of its platform targets of breast and ovarian cancers, diseases that are historically under-researched and challenging to treat.

“While cancer immunotherapy has revolutionized the treatment of some tumors, many cancers, including ovarian and breast, have seen lackluster responses to existing immunotherapies, and patients are in dire need of new options,” Barkal said.

The role of the CD24 protein as a signal that protects cancer cells from being "eaten" by white blood cells called macrophages was uncovered by Barkal and Irv Weissman, M.D., at Stanford University. Weissman went on to co-found immuno-oncology company Forty Seven, which was acquired by Gilead Sciences in 2020.

Both Weissman and Barkal are among Pheast’s founders and leadership team along with Ravi Majeti, M.D., Ph.D., and Roy Maute, Ph.D. Both Majeti and Maute were involved in Forty Seven as co-founder and director of translational research, respectively. The leadership team of scientists has built a strong foundation for Pheast, Barkal said, noting that including this expertise at the base of an organization can help maximize success, a philosophy that also reaped benefits for Forty Seven.

Investors clearly agree. "Pheast’s exceptional leadership and differentiated approach to leveraging macrophage checkpoints to develop life-changing cancer therapies have quickly positioned the company as a leader in the immuno-oncology space," said George Petrocheilos, co-founder and managing partner of Catalio, in an April 26 release.

While Pheast’s therapies are still simmering in the cooker, the preclinical-stage company’s approach differs from most other immunotherapies, which have focused on enhancing adaptive immune responses by targeting T cells. Instead, Pheast is exploring cancer immune evasion pathways to trigger the innate immune system, targeting an entirely new signaling axis via CD24, and developing therapeutic strategies to mix macrophage checkpoint inhibitors with existing therapies.

In addition to the company’s publicly disclosed targets, Pheast anticipates having a vast pipeline open to other tumor types, Barkal said, adding that this broad potential is part of the "beauty and longevity" of the company's vision. The scientist is particularly interested in colorectal cancer, for which current treatments only resonate well with some patients.     

"Pheast is such a passion of mine," Barkal said when asked about her interim leadership status. "As a principal founder, it’s been such a privilege to lead and help us secure financing."

The company is actively searching for a permanent CEO who has a strong background in business. "My passion does mainly lie with clinical development and research," she added.

Even after securing a new leader, she won’t be leaving Pheast anytime soon. The company isn’t just a passion project for the scientist—it’s personal. After Barkal's grandmother was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia and didn’t respond well to treatment, she entered a clinical trial that extended her life by an additional 20 years. "That’s 20 extra years I got to spend with her, based on a scientific discovery," Barkal said. 

Pheast has the potential to offer a fresh menu of treatment options to patients in need—a sentiment integral to the startup's mission and shared by the whole team.    

"I’m a doctor in a hospital too and it’s very moving when you have to explain to patients there is nothing else left to try," Barkal said. "That’s motivating—to use the science to give new therapies for patients that don’t have any options left."