Merck KGaA spinout iOnctura raises cash for cancer trials

Members of the iOnctura management team (iOnctura)

Merck KGaA spinout iOnctura has raised a €15 million ($17 million) series A round to support an early-phase solid tumor trial. The company is gearing up to generate data on PI3Kδ inhibitor IOA-244 in humans while hustling a second candidate through IND-enabling studies.

Merck joined forces with Cancer Research UK to create iOnctura in 2017, when each of the founding organizations contributed assets designed to modulate immunosuppressive mechanisms that affect the tumor microenvironment. Working with funding from Merck’s VC wing, M Ventures, iOnctura has taken two of the assets toward the clinic.

The series A will see iOnctura through the next, more expensive phase of its evolution. IOA-244 is in a phase 1 trial in solid tumor patients. The series A will support that program while leaving iOnctura with enough left over to take ATX inhibitor IOA-289 closer to the clinic. 

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The company has expanded its investor syndicate to fund the work. INKEF Capital and VI Partners co-led the round. New investor Schroder Adveq also contributed cash, as did iOnctura’s founding financier M Ventures. 

The syndicate put up the money in light of the potential of iOnctura’s pipeline. PI3K has attracted the interest of multiple drug developers, leading to the approval of products such as Bayer’s Aliqopa and Gilead’s Zydelig. However, the lack of isoform selectivity and safety issues of first-generation PI3K inhibitors has suggested opportunities for new, better drugs remain.

Like companies including TG Therapeutics, iOnctura has identified the delta isoform of PI3K as a better way to get at biology that affects regulatory T cells and myeloid derived suppressor cells. In mice, iOnctura linked IOA-244 to decreases in those cell types, increases in natural killer cells and the inhibition of tumors when administered in combination with a checkpoint inhibitor. 

The preclinical results led researchers at iOnctura and Cancer Research UK to claim “IOA-244 has the potential to be a best-in-class PI3Kδ inhibitor with a safety and pharmacokinetic profile that is amenable for use alone and in combination with immunotherapies for the treatment of solid malignancies.” 

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