Elicio Therapeutics aims to sneak cancer vaccines into the lymph nodes, with $30M to launch

By targeting the body’s lymph nodes with anti-cancer vaccines, new immunotherapy developer Elicio Therapeutics aims to focus on ground zero of the body’s immune system. And to do it, the startup is getting underway with $30 million in funds, a new CEO and tech from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Elicio hopes to use precision vaccines, immunomodulators and cell-based therapies to summon cancer-killing immune responses against both blood and solid tumors, based on a platform developed in the lab of Darrell Irvine, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and professor at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT.

Its “Amphiphile” platform includes molecules that mimic fatty acids, letting them hitchhike on the large albumin proteins that drain into the body’s lymphatic system. This allows them to avoid getting swept away in the bloodstream, so they can deliver immunogens that signal T cells to a therapeutic response.

The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company believes this delivery strategy can be applied to many types of signaling molecules—as well as peptides, DNA and proteins—to put them in front of the largest audience of immune cell receptors and help them unlock their full potential in the lymph nodes. It can also combine with other advanced therapies, including CAR-T cells, tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes and natural killer cells, the company said.

Elicio plans to launch its first human studies in the first half of 2020, for its two lead vaccines in pancreatic cancer and head and neck cancers. Those two assets are also being studied preclinically in KRAS-associated colorectal and non-small cell lung cancers, as well as HPV-driven cervical and vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia, while a third, adjuvant treatment is being developed in multiple indications. Details of the company's funding were not disclosed.

Leading the effort as CEO will be Robert Connelly, until recently a venture partner at Flagship Pioneering, who has experience building up several small biotechs. He was the founding CEO of the antibody developer Domantis—which was eventually sold to GlaxoSmithKline for $454 million in 2007—and also served as CEO of Pulmatrix and Axcella Health, which poached Novartis’ U.S. oncology head to take Connelly’s place last year.

RELATED: Despite notable failures, cancer vaccines are poised for a leap onto the market: expert

Cancer vaccines have seen a number of late-stage failures over the past few years, including high-profile letdowns from GlaxoSmithKline, Merck KGaA, Bavarian Nordic and Argos Therapeutics—as well as somewhat shaky phase 1b data from NantKwest's oncologic drug cocktail, which was unveiled last fall.

But there's still some hope for the idea: Just last month, Merck & Co. shelled out $300 million for Immune Design and its midphase immunotherapy platform, which aims to boost local responses within the tumor microenvironment.

“The great early promise of cancer vaccines has fallen well short and exciting new immunotherapies often fail or are limited due to their inability to target and concentrate in lymph nodes, where the immune response is orchestrated,” Connelly said in a statement.

“There is no other platform that can potentially produce highly effective cancer vaccines and adjuvants while also combining with cellular therapies such as CAR-T, TILs, and NK cells to substantially enhance their effectiveness and address their deficiencies,” he said.