Immunitas snags $39M to bring new I-O approach to the clinic

Checkpoint inhibitors have seen success in certain cancers, such as lung cancer and melanoma, but they don’t work for everyone. The usual answer has been to throw them into combination studies with new drugs designed to boost their efficacy. Immunitas Therapeutics thinks there’s a better way. 

“Most current immuno-oncology drugs aren’t really targeted. They’re effective—if you’re lucky—in about 15% to 25% of the patients you’re treating,” Lea Hachigian, Ph.D., co-founder, director and president of Immunitas, told FierceBiotech. “When people try to improve outcomes, they’re really starting to rely on combinations instead of thinking about the targets that actually reach those other patients.” 

Immunitas is looking for those other targets, and, to that end, it’s raised $39 million in series A funding from the likes of Novartis Venture Fund, Leaps by Bayer, Evotec, Alexandria Venture Investments and M Ventures. 

The company’s work is based on a drug development platform that uses single-cell genomic sequencing on all the different cell types in the tumor microenvironment to identify new drug targets and develop monoclonal antibodies with single-agent activity—meaning, drugs designed to act alone and not to rely on combinations. 

Hachigian likens the single-cell approach to picking raisins out of trail mix. 

“If I wanted to eat some raisins, I could pick up a handful of trail mix. By eating a bunch of handfuls, I can then figure out what raisins taste like—eventually,” she said. “But if I preselected raisins out of the trail mix and eat them specifically, I would find out in a more targeted way what they taste like. 

“Single-cell genomic sequencing works in the same way—it tastes human tumors directly and asks what is special about the T cells, or [natural killer] cells in the tumor environment that may have anti-tumor properties. We can then harness those differences and create meaningful treatments for patients,” she said. 

The approach has the potential not just to uncover new drug targets, but also to pinpoint biomarkers for patient selection. The technology identifies thousands of genes in a tumor, and with computational algorithms developed by Immunitas’ co-founders, sorts through the background noise to arrive at targets against which to develop antibodies for a “highly specific patient group.” 

“We start with a human tumor, develop the drug, and go back to the single cell data to find which patients are expressing those key genes and go directly to those patients,” Hachigian said. Instead of aiming at 100% of patients and treating only 25% of them, Immunitas is going directly to the small percentage of patients who will benefit from each treatment.   

And because it starts with human tumor samples, the company will be able to avoid the pitfalls of translating research from lab and animal models to people. 

“One of today’s biggest challenges in oncology is how to efficiently and effectively move preclinical research into human therapies while avoiding the false signals often seen in animal models,” Dr. Jürgen Eckhardt, head of Leaps by Bayer, said in a statement. “The scientific founders of Immunitas have elegantly solved this problem by dissecting the biology of immune cells in human tumors directly.” 

The funding will enable Immunitas to move at least its lead program from preclinical to clinical development, Hachigian said. It could also see a few more programs into the clinic as well. But it’s too early to divulge which cancer types the company is going after, she said. 

“The Immunitas platform is designed to reveal novel and important adaptive and innate immune interactions with tumor cells, which may open up new possibilities in cancer therapy.  My scientific co-founders and I look forward to continuing to work with the Immunitas team as they advance this powerful science,” Immunitas co-founder Kai Wucherpfennig, M.D., Ph.D., of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School, said in a statement. 

2020 will be a year of growth for Immunitas. The company, which counts five employees and is working out of an incubator space, plans to grow threefold and move into a permanent home. It has already added Chief Scientific Officer Tarek Samad, Ph.D., and Amanda Wagner, vice president of strategy and operations, and plans to build a team to carry out clinical activities.