Rakuten’s CEO raises $150M to fund his biotech outfit Aspyrian's cancer photoimmunotherapies

The company’s lead product combines EGFR-targeting therapy with an infrared dye, activated inside tumors using laser light. (Pixabay)

Rakuten Aspyrian has raised $150 million in a series C round to fund its photoimmunotherapy platform and a phase 3 trial in head and neck cancer, alongside plans to expand its pipeline to include other tumor types, both as a monotherapy and in combination with other cancer treatments.

The round was led by the CEO of the Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten, Hiroshi Mikitani, who has personally funded the venture in the past. The new money brings the company's total fundraising to about $238 million.

“Rakuten Aspyrian’s approach of combining a biologic with laser activation to target tumors holds the potential to offer an alternative treatment option to help cancer patients fight their disease,” Mikitani, who serves as the chairman of Rakuten Aspyrian, said in a statement. “My vision is to develop and commercialize a strong pipeline of treatments based on photoimmunotherapy to create a new platform for cancer treatments.”

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The company’s lead product, ASP-1929, received an FDA Fast Track designation and is being studied in recurrent head and neck squamous cell carcinomas.

A conjugate of Erbitux and LI-COR’s IRDye 700DX infrared dye, ASP-1929 targets the epidermal growth factor receptor antigen expressed in several solid tumors. After infiltrating cancer cells, the drug is beamed and locally activated with red light, using an investigational laser and fiber optic system, which allows the drug to induce cell death with less effect on the surrounding tissues.

Rakuten Aspyrian, which maintains offices in San Diego, Tokyo and Germany, is also planning to use the series C proceeds to scale-up manufacturing of ASP-1929, as well as expand its corporate operations team to support plans for commercialization in the U.S., Japan and Europe.

The new funding will also support the launch of two phase 2 proof-of-concept studies in additional, unnamed cancer types before the end of the year, the company said.

Interim results from a phase 1/2 trial in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma showed improvements in overall responses, and potential improvements in progression-free survival and overall survival when compared to historical standard-of-care data, according to Rakuten Aspyrian. Top-line results are expected later this year.