GSK, Gates Foundation help immuno-oncology player to $56M Series A round

GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have contributed to a $56 million Series A investment in Atreca. The immuno-oncology biotech, which has yet to advance a program into preclinical testing, will plow the cash into a pipeline of drugs designed to boost the effectiveness of checkpoint inhibitors and immune activators.

An unnamed large U.S.-based, healthcare-focused fund led the oversubscribed round with support from GSK, the Gates Foundation and Mission Bay Capital. Each of the investors was attracted by the potential of the drug discovery platform Atreca has licensed from Stanford University and the track record of the team it has put together to wring programs from the technology. The plan is to profit from the rising recognition of the potential of cancer drug combos by discovering drugs that make checkpoint inhibitors and immune activators safer and more effective.

The platform licensed from Stanford is at the heart of the plan. "With Atreca's proprietary and validated technology, we can now capture and analyze effective anti-cancer immune responses in an unprecedented manner, enabling the discovery and development of therapeutics designed to drive more robust and focused anti-tumor immune responses," Atreca CEO and co-founder Tito Serafini said in a statement. Prior to setting up Atreca, Serafini worked as CSO of Nuon Therapeutics and co-founded Renovis.

Atreca CEO and co-founder Tito Serafini

Serafini is far from alone in being excited about the platform. The backing of A-list investors comes 11 months after Atreca entered into a collaboration with Johnson & Johnson's ($JNJ) Janssen unit. The J&J deal is aiming the platform licensed from Stanford in autoimmune diseases, freeing Atreca to focus its internal resources on immuno-oncology and infectious diseases. Regardless of the disease being targeted, the platform works by using single-cell analysis to detail the activity of the immune system.

In immuno-oncology, this allows Atreca to profile the immune responses of the subset of patients who respond best to checkpoint inhibitors and immune activators. By understanding why these people respond particularly well to treatment, Atreca thinks it can design drugs that enable the rest of the patient population to experience such immune responses. If checkpoint inhibitors "take the brakes" off the immune system, Atreca's are designed to act as the "engine and steering" of the response.

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