J&J taps Lava to develop anti-cancer gamma-delta T-cell engagers

Lava Therapeutics thinks it can boost tumor cell killing and support the development of adaptive immune responses. (Raysonho/CC0)

Johnson & Johnson has formed a collaboration with Lava Therapeutics to develop gamma-delta T-cell engagers. The agreement moves J&J into an emerging corner of the immuno-oncology sector that has attracted the interest of companies including Pfizer Ventures and Takeda.

Gamma-delta T cells are lymphocytes that play a role in natural and induced immunity to cancer. The niche has lagged behind other immuno-oncology approaches, such as those focused on CD4+ helper and CD8+ cytotoxic T cells, but has risen in prominence in recent years as researchers have linked the presence of gamma-delta T cells in tumors to positive outcomes.

Lava set up shop in 2016 to build on work Hans van der Vliet and his team performed in Amsterdam but only really put itself on the map two years later when Gilde Healthcare and Versant Ventures led a €16 million ($17.3 million) financing round.

The deal with J&J’s Janssen further raises the profile of Lava. Reflecting the early-stage nature of the project, details of the collaboration are scant. J&J is paying an upfront fee of undisclosed size and committing to milestones and royalties. In return, Lava will perform drug discovery and development work. Key details, such as the targets covered by the deal, are yet to emerge. 

Lava has been more forthcoming about the broad details of its platform. The Dutch biotech is focused on Vγ9Vδ2 T cells, a population of gamma-delta T cells. By designing bispecific antibodies that bind to membrane-expressed tumor targets and activate Vγ9Vδ2 T cells, Lava thinks it can boost tumor cell killing and support the development of adaptive immune responses.

Some gamma-delta biotechs, such as GammaDelta Therapeutics, are focused on cell therapies, but Lava is far from alone in trying to develop antibodies that engage the cells. GammaDelta spun out its antibody operation to form Adaptate Biotherapeutics last year, aided by an agreement that gave Takeda an option to buy the new biotech. Weeks later, Pfizer Ventures co-led a $53 million series B intended to equip ImCheck to take anti-BTN3A antibody ICT01 into the clinic. 

As Lava has worked to establish itself in the nascent field, it has received validation from a series of people and organizations. Lava’s €16 million round coincided with the appointment of Paul Parren, the former head of preclinical R&D at Genmab. The biotech has since named Stephen Hurly, once the CEO of Nasdaq-listed Sesen Bio, as its leader.