NousCom bags €42M to trial off-the-shelf cancer vaccine

Cancer vaccine startup NousCom has raised €42 million ($49 million). The round equips a team last seen leading Okairos to a €250 million buyout by GlaxoSmithKline to take off-the-shelf neoantigen cancer vaccine NOUS-209 into the clinic.

Basel, Switzerland-based NousCom’s near-term prospects rest on programs based on Exovax. The Exovax platform uses single adenovirus vectors that can encode for 100 or more neoantigens to create vaccines that induce development and expansion of T-cell populations, including effector memory T cells. 

Like other neoantigen biotechs, NousCom is planning to combine its vaccines with checkpoint inhibitors. One thing that sets it apart is that its technology is similar to that used by Okairos to create vaccines tested in more than 4,000 people, a fact that gives that gives NousCom confidence in the safety and immunogenicity—particularly CD8 T-cell response—of its candidates as it heads into the clinic.  

NousCom’s first priority is to move NOUS-209 into phase 1/2 next year. If NousCom hits its target, it thinks NOUS-209 may become the first off-the-shelf neoantigen cancer vaccine to be tested in humans. NousCom is developing the vaccine as a way to prevent cancer in Lynch syndrome carriers and treat tumors characterized by microsatellite instability.

“We were able to identify a subset of neoantigens that are shared among patients who are affected by a specific type of cancer. Therefore, we can generate a vaccine that will be used in each and every patient,” Alfredo Nicosia, Ph.D. said.

The next asset coming down the pipe is NOUS-100-PV, a personalized neoantigen-based vaccine NousCom expects to move into the clinic in the back half of next year. The manufacturing process NousCom designed to support Exovax is intended to enable fast assembly of vectors and parallel production of personalized vaccines. 

NousCom tapped LSP and Versant Ventures for €12 million last year to support work on these and other prospects. Now, NousCom has pulled in more cash by adding Abingworth—the lead backer of the series B—and 5AM Ventures to its list of investors. LSP and Versant also returned for the series B.

"We are excited to work with the team at NousCom to develop its platform which has already demonstrated very promising immunological and efficacy results in preclinical studies. Because of its ability to induce potent CD8 T cell responses, in addition to CD4, and deliver large amount of immunogenic information, we believe it holds strong promise in the clinic,” Genghis Lloyd-Harris, M.D., Ph.D., a partner of Abingworth, said in a statement.

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The links between LSP, Versant and the team behind NousCom date back to before the founding of the cancer vaccine startup. Back then, NousCom’s founders and executives were working at Okairos, a genetic vaccine player that picked up money from LSP and Versant on its way to a takeover by GSK.   

Okairos’ cofounders and executives including Nicosia, the late Riccardo Cortese, Ph.D., M.D., Stefano Colloca, M.D., and Antonella Folgori, Ph.D., joined with two of their colleagues from that time—Elisa Scarselli, M.D., and Cinzia Traboni, Ph.D.—to create NousCom. 

The long-standing collaborators occupy the leadership positions at NousCom. Nicosia, Okairos’ CSO, has stepped up to the CEO post, freeing up the top scientific post for Scarselli, who worked as clinical director at the previous startup.

Together, the researchers are now applying the genetic vaccine knowledge they accrued at Okairos and, before that, Merck’s former Italian research center IRBM to cancer. The team’s arrival in the field comes at a time when rising excitement about neoantigens has resurrected hopes for cancer vaccines.