Merck Ventures, CRUK launch new immuno-oncology spinout biotech iOnctura

Catherine Pickering, CEO and co-founder of iOnctura

German Merck, fresh off it and partner Pfizer’s FDA approval for their checkpoint inhibitor Bavencio, and R&D charity CRUK are coming together to launch a biotech focused on immuno-oncology.

The company, called iOnctura, has come to life via its venture arm Merck Ventures and is formed around two assets from the pipeline of Merck and three assets from Cancer Research Technology (CRT), the commercial arm of London’s Cancer Research U.K. (CRUK).

Merck Ventures will pump in initial seed money, with Hakan Goker, senior investment director at the firm alongside Keno Gutierrez, its investment director, both sitting on the spinoff’s board.

Under the pact between it and CRUK, Merck will manage the investment of the biotech.

“Our goal is to modulate key culprits of immunosuppression in the tumor microenvironment to maximize the therapeutic potential of checkpoint inhibitors for patients,” said Catherine Pickering, CEO and co-founder of iOnctura. Pickering is also head of oncology licensing, global business development at Merck Serono, its biomedical business.

iOnctura said it aims to develop “a pipeline of selected assets” that target and modulate mechanisms that drive immunosuppression in the tumor microenvironment (TME).

Such immunosuppression has been shown to be one of the main causes behind a significant number of patients not responding to first generation checkpoint inhibitors, such as those from Merck’s rivals AstraZeneca, Roche, U.S. Merck and Bristol-Myers Squibb.

Merck and drug partner Pfizer already have its own checkpoint inhibitor, Bavencio (avelumab), which got the FDA green light in bladder cancer a few months back.

iOnctura, through its alliances with Merck and CRT, has according to both groups “already built a pipeline of promising programs and entered a research collaboration with CRT Discovery Laboratories.” Further details on these programs were not included in the release.

It did say, however, that in exchange for the exclusive global option to license three immuno-oncology assets from CRT, iOnctura will provide CRT with “an initial equity holding in the company,” with biobucks also lined up. A financial breakdown of the deal was not provided.

iOnctura also gets access to a future supply of Bavencio, which will “enable acceleration into initial clinical proof of concept studies.”

“We’re delighted that these three potential new cancer treatments, partly developed by our drug discovery laboratories alongside leading Cancer Research UK-funded scientists, have been prioritized for further development through the formation of this new company. The ongoing support by our drug discovery laboratories will hopefully help build a strong development pipeline for iOnctura,” said Stuart Farrow, CRT’s director of biology.