Turnstone Biologics sees $41.4M Series B for oncolytic viral cancer R&D

Turnstone Biologics will use its new cash pot to both boost and expand its pipeline of oncolytic viral immunotherapies with help from new investors OrbiMed and F-Prime Capital Partners.

The Canadian-based biotech has raised the cash less than a year after its initial Series A, which helped it push on with a Phase I/II test for its lead oncolytic Maraba virus product in solid tumors.

Its Series B $41.4 million will be used to finish off this ongoing test, which should be done by next year, and be put toward three additional clinical programs that are set to start in 2016/2017.

One of those set to start later this year is a Phase I/II trial with its med in a combo therapy with an approved checkpoint inhibitor (which one was not made public, but can only be from Merck, Bristol-Myers or Roche) in non-small cell lung cancer.

Two other programs, each with oncolytic Maraba viruses expressing different tumor antigens for various cancer indications, should enter the clinic by the end of next year.

The foundation of its tech, the Maraba platform, uses rhabdovirus isolates to penetrate cancer cells and then destroy them, while whipping up a T-cell attack on tumors.

Turnstone said in a statement that it is also working on other pipeline candidates focused on neoantigen-based personalized cancer vaccines, as well as a new oncolytic virus development.

“We are taking a rapid and expansive approach to clinical development with the goals of exploiting the full potential of our platform and positioning it to most benefit patients,” said Turnstone CEO Sammy Farah in the statement. “There is reason to be excited about the heavily differentiated nature of our technology and the promising clinical results that have been generated to date.”

As is common in these venture raises, OrbiMed Partner Rishi Gupta and F-Prime’s Ben Auspitz will join Turnstone’s board of directors.

Turnstone is not the only group looking to use oncolytic viruses as a form of immunotherapy in cancer research. Back in October last year, Amgen ($AMGN) gained FDA approval for the first oncolytic virus-based drug, Imlygic (talimogene laherparepvec), for the treatment of melanoma lesions in the skin and lymph nodes.

Amgen gained access to the drug, which uses a re-engineered form of the herpesvirus, in 2011, when it paid $425 million--plus $575 million in potential milestone payments--to acquire Imlygic from its original inventor, Biovex.

Amgen’s drug however had a rocky road to approval with several trial hiccoughs, and is estimated by analysts to only make around $200 million a year in peak sales. Its tech approach is close to that of Turnstone, although it thinks it can produce a better therapy from its labs. 

A handful of other smaller biotechs and pharmas, such as Canada’s Oncolytics Biotech, upstart Oncorus and the Pink Army, founded and run by former Amgen scientist Andrew Hessel, as well as Boehringer, are also looking to create similar therapies.

As with Turnstone, many of these drugs are also being tested alongside other immunotherapies, such as checkpoint inhibitors, to expand efficacy.

This is in fact true of both Amgen and Oncolytics, which have both (separately) teamed up with Merck ($MRK) and its checkpoint inhibitor Keytruda in a Phase III and Phase I test respectively.