Novartis oncology vet to head up cancer I/O startup Neon

Cambridge, MA, and Boston

It’s been just about a year since immuno-oncology startup Neon Therapeutics unveiled itself alongside a $55 million pile of Series A cash. Now, evidently, the Cambridge, MA-based company is ready to graduate from a venture-oriented CEO to a former pharma exec ready to jump into the clinical fray.

Neon has brought on former Novartis exec Hugh O’Dowd to replace interim CEO Dr. Cary Pfeffer, who is a partner at Third Rock Ventures. That firm formed the company and led its Series A financing.

“Hugh brings great depth of expertise in oncology, and has played a pivotal role in building Novartis Oncology into one of the world’s leading oncology companies,” said Pfeffer in a statement. “Hugh’s broad drug development and commercialization experience, combined with his personable, motivating leadership style, will be critical to Neon Therapeutics as we rapidly advance our neoantigen-based immuno-oncology treatments for patients in need.”

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O’Dowd has held a series of regional executive spots at Novartis ($NVS) including most recently country president and general manager of the United Kingdom and Ireland. Prior to that, he was SVP and CCO of Novartis Oncology. He spent more than 20 years with the pharma, but opted to make the startup leap now with Neon.

“Immuno-oncology has already shown great progress, though we are on the cusp of a real sea change in cancer treatment to properly harness the immune system to attack cancer,” said O’Dowd. “Neon Therapeutics has already made impressive headway in advancing its programs, including moving NEO-PV-01 to an accepted IND, and its science has the potential to fundamentally change cancer treatment.”

NEO-PV-01 is also already the subject of a clinical collaboration with Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY). The pair signed the deal last December to put the personalized neoantigen vaccine into the clinic with the pharma’s PD-1 immune checkpoint inhibitor Opdivo (nivolumab).

The Phase 1b trial was set to start this year and to evaluate the combo in melanoma, smoking-associated non-small cell lung cancer and bladder cancer. It includes the evaluation of neoantigen-specific immune responses in peripheral blood and tumor tissue, as well as other indicators of immune response such as PD-L1 expression.

NEO-PV-01 is a personalized neoantigen vaccine based on DNA mutations from patients’ individual tumors, while Opdivo is a human programmed death receptor-1 (PD-1) blocking antibody that binds to the PD-1 receptor expressed on activated T cells.

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