Immuno-oncology startup TCR2 promises to improve on CAR-T

There's a new kid on the immuno-oncology block. Armed with debut financing of $44.5 million and fronted by biotech industry vet Garry Menzel, TCR2 Therapeutics says it is set to advance its cell-based cancer therapies toward the clinic.

T cells—and specifically chimeric antigen receptor (CAR-T) cells—are already being tested for their ability to tackle cancer, but TCR2 reckons its technology offers some improvements, including greater activity against solid tumors.

Like CAR-T, TCR2's approach relies on re-engineering a patient's own immune cells to attack cancers. Its projects are still in early-stage development, but TCR2 has aspirations to move forward quickly with trials as it chases after CAR-T specialists like Novartis and Kite Pharma which are gearing up to submit candidates for hematological cancers for possible regulatory approval before the end of next year.

TCR2 was formed last year by venture capital fund MPM Capital and Dr. Patrick Baeuerle, an immuno-oncologist who formerly served as chief scientific officer at Micromet, now part of Amgen.

Earlier this year the company took space at the Kendall Square biohub in Cambridge, MA, and since then has added to its top management with the appointment of Menzel—formerly at Axcella Health DaVita Healthcare and Regulus—as well as ex-EMD Serono immuno-oncology chief Robert Hofmeister who serves as its CSO.

"We have already validated our novel immunotherapy platform and will be advancing our lead programs rapidly toward the clinic while partnering with industry leaders," commented Menzel.

TCR2's approach is based on T cell receptor (TCR) fusion constructs that can be used to reprogram natural TCRs on T cells to recognize specific tumor antigens. The approach is similar to CAR-T, but has some key advantages, it claims.

There are already questions about the durability and safety of CAR-T therapies, and so far they seem to have limited activity against solid tumors, which may be because by design they only carry a single TCR subunit. 

As TCR2's constructs incorporate the full TCR complex—all receptor subunits and naturally associating co-receptors—the company believes it will be able to show improved efficacy against both hematological and solid tumors.

"The T cell receptor with its six distinct subunits is arguably the most complex receptor found in the human body," commented Dr. Baeuerle. "Growing evidence suggests that all TCR subunits interact with each other in a unique and critical way to determine the strength, duration and quality of response inside T cells."

TCR2 says it has shown antitumor activity for its modified T cells in preclinical models across multiple tumor targets.