Startup Palleon has a sweet plan for cancer immunotherapy

The immuno-oncology sector has a new player. Massachusetts startup Palleon Pharmaceuticals has raised $47.6 million to fund the development of drugs that target sugar-sensing molecules on the surfaces of cells.

The biotech has been launched to target ‘glycoimmune’ checkpoints—which it describes as receptors on immune cells that normally distinguish ‘self’ from ‘non-self’ cells but get exploited in cancer to create immunosuppression that allows tumors to thrive.

“When first-generation T-cell checkpoint inhibitors work, they work extremely well, but unfortunately the majority of patients still do not respond,” Jim Broderick, M.D., Palleon’s CEO and founder, told FierceBiotech. “This is because most tumors utilize multiple strategies to thwart the immune system, and T-cell checkpoint inhibition is insufficient to drive a response alone.”

“The next chapter of immuno-oncology will need to employ a coordinated effort of both innate (dendritic cells, macrophages and natural killer cells) and the adaptive (T-cells) immune cells to overcome this multilayered resistance,” he added.

The biotech—which was set up in 2015 and incubated and launched from SR One’s Cambridge, Massachusetts, office where Broderick served as entrepreneur-in-residence—says it has licensed intellectual property related to glycoimmune checkpoints from its co-founders Carolyn Bertozzi, Ph.D., of Stanford University, and Paul Crocker, Ph.D., of Dundee University in the U.K.

Their work has built on decades of research which has shown that some glycan patterns on tumor cells—such as a motif known as ‘hypersialylation’—are associated with poor clinical outcomes, and it is thought that these patterns help hide the cells from the immune system.

The company isn’t giving away anything about specific targets other than to say it has three lead programs and certainly isn’t speculating about when it will be able to start clinical trials. The CEO said, however, that the approach could be of value in cancers defined by “certain cell surface and shed mucin glycan patterns,” which include solid tumors such as colon, breast and lung cancers, as well as some hematological malignancies.

Glycoimmune checkpoints are expressed on a broader range of innate as well as adaptive immune cells critical to an antitumor response compared to other targets, he added. Targeting them “offers the potential to awaken a broader spectrum of the immune system in tumor types that are not responsive to first generation immuno-oncology drugs.”

The series A funding comes from SR One as well as Pfizer Ventures, Vertex Ventures HC, Takeda Ventures and AbbVie Ventures, and will be used to building out Palleon’s platform and get product development underway.

Broderick said Palleon has 15 employees today and expects that headcount to “expand considerably” over the next year.

“The most meaningful breakthroughs often occur at the intersection of diverse and seemingly unrelated scientific disciplines. Palleon was spawned by bringing together new findings in glycoscience and human immunology, which resulted in unexpected implications for oncology.”

“The convergence of these two fields has enabled us to develop a novel class of medicines that could have a significant impact on the lives of cancer patients.”