U.K. cancer charity, investment firm launch neoantigen biotech

Cancer Research UK (CRUK) and London investment firm Syncona have joined forces to fund and launch a new neoantigen-focused lung cancer biotech.

The company, known as Achilles Therapeutics, launched today with £13.2 million ($17.5 million), led by Syncona and CRUK’s commercial arm Cancer Research Technology, as well as funding from University College London (UCL).

The new biotech says in a statement that it will bring together “world-class research” from UCL and the Francis Crick Institute--a biomedical discovery institute founded by the U.K.’s top academic centers--and will be propped up by CRUK and the National Institute for Health Research.

Its focus initially is on certain forms of lung cancer, specifically on targets for truncal tumor neoantigen, which are created by specific mutations in a patient’s tumor.

This type of therapy is a burgeoning field in cancer research that seeks to develop personalized therapeutic cancer vaccines that use unique neoantigens--antigens which are foreign to the body, found in cancer--that can be used to spur a specific immune system attack tailored to the individual patient.

CRUK explains that truncal tumor neoantigens could also help reduce side effects, as they are “present on all cancer cells in an individual patient’s tumour but not on healthy cells, so could allow scientists to target and destroy tumours without harming healthy tissues.”

The new biotech also gains exclusive rights to develop and sell neoantigen technologies arising from CRUK’s £14 million TRACERx non-small cell lung cancer study, which tracks the evolution of patients’ cancers over time, in different parts of their tumors and in response to treatment.

Professor Charles Swanton, scientific founder of Achilles Therapeutics and a group leader at the Francis Crick Institute, said: “Our research could provide a truly personalised approach to lung cancer therapy by targeting cell surface markers that are specific to each patient and present on all cancer cells rather than just a subset of cells. We’re delighted to be able to bring this exciting science closer to the clinic. We hope to create a new and kinder treatment for this hard-to-treat disease that results in around 36,000 patient deaths each year in the UK.”

Iraj Ali, partner with Syncona and director of Achilles Therapeutics, added: “In founding Achilles we believe we are working with the world leaders capable of exploiting the confluence of two of the most exciting and innovative fields in healthcare today: cancer bioinformatics and immuno-therapy. Our ambition is to build a company to deliver personalised therapies with transformative potential for cancer patients with the greatest need.”

It’s not of course the only one in this space, with Neon Therapeutics, a winner of this year’s Fierce 15, also at work in the neoantigen field with its attempt at a next-gen cancer vaccine, with the first study set to see it used alongside Bristol-Myers Squibb's ($BMY) PD-1 med Opdivo (nivolumab).

Neoantigens loomed large last year, drawing the attention of Moderna and biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong, who spent $50 million to buy control of Precision Biologics, which is also working on neoepitopes.

Back in May, two cancer immunotherapy biotechs, Immune Design ($IMDZ) and upstart Gritstone Oncology, also signed a research collab to help find tumor antigens and then develop neoantigen-based immunotherapies.