Next-gen oncolytics upstart Replimune grabs a $30M transatlantic venture round

Robert Coffin

One of the original players in the development of Amgen's ($AMGN) cancer therapy talimogene laherparepvec (T-Vec), now up under review at the FDA, has started a new biotech focused on oncolytics drug development. And the U.K. company attracted a $30 million startup round from a transatlantic group of venture players to get started with a splash.

Replimune was started by Robert Coffin, a founder and CSO of BioVex, which developed the leading oncolytic cancer therapy now in Amgen's hands. Back when Merck's ($MRK) Roger Perlmutter led R&D at Amgen, he grabbed BioVex in a $1 billion buyout deal in 2011, putting the company on a track to a likely marketing approval at the FDA.

From its base in Oxford, Replimune will now set out to see if it can create a next-gen oncolytic, looking to use a viral strategy to explode tumor cells and release antigens that flag a follow-up attack on the tumors by the immune system.

This approach may well fit in neatly with the way pioneering checkpoint inhibitors like Keytruda and Opdivo work to help unleash an immune system attack on a broad range of cancers, and Replimune says it is on track to start combination studies at an early point.

Significantly, the company's scientific background and future potential attracted venture support from both sides of the Atlantic, offering fresh evidence of a resurgence in the U.K. biotech scene. Atlas Venture led this round, joining seed investors at Forbion Capital Partners and Omega Funds.

"We are at the beginning of the age of immune-oncology and believe that oncolytic viruses will be a powerful component of this emerging therapeutic approach," said Jason Rhodes, a partner at Atlas. "Atlas is very pleased to be working with the exceptional and experienced team at Replimune."

Amgen was grilled by outside experts at the FDA back in March, raising doubts about the mixed efficacy of T-Vec and whether it should be restricted to specific patient populations. But the panel had no difficulty in endorsing an approval for this drug, underscoring the agency's openness to approving drugs based on the need for gaining access to new therapies for a last-ditch defense against cancer. And it appears to be poised for a near-term approval.

- here's the release