Immune Design recruits new team, lands $32.5M for cancer immunotherapies

Immune Design CEO Carlos Paya

Over the last few months, Carlos Paya has been filling out his management team at Seattle-based Immune Design. And today the biotech CEO detailed an injection of $32.5 million in venture cash--with the near-term prospect of adding $16.5 million more--to finance the biotech's efforts to nail proof-of-concept data on its two top cancer vaccines.

This new venture round will add three years to the company's runway.

The Column Group led this latest round for the 5-year-old biotech, with new investors Topspin Partners and Sanofi-Genzyme BioVentures getting into the action with existing investors Alta Partners, Versant Ventures, Osage Partners and ProQuest Investments. They're backing a team that now includes several veteran biopharma players: Stephen Brady, the new chief business officer; Richard Kenney, chief medical officer; Jan Henrik ter Meulen, chief scientific officer and Frank Hsu, vice president, head of oncology.

CEO Carlos Paya tells FierceBiotech that the latest round of hires took him to the San Francisco biotech hub. And he's opened a facility in the Bay Area for about 10 staffers so they could stay close to home while working for Immune Design, which now counts a staff of 30.

"We're transitioning over from a startup to clinical-stage development," says Paya, the former president at Elan ($ELN). "We really needed to have the best people in the industry."

Cancer immunotherapy has attracted quite a bit of attention for a leading group of checkpoint receptor inhibitors--PD-1 and PD-L1--that expose cancer cells to an immune system attack. But Immune Design is operating on the therapeutic vaccine side of the business, looking to spur an immune system attack on cancer. Dendreon's ($DNDN) Provenge was the pioneering program in the field, which proved a tremendous disappointment commercially. And there have been other big setbacks recently, with a Phase III failure for Stimuvax, which came out of Seattle-based Oncothyreon ($ONCY), and MAGE-A3 at GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK).

Paya, though, says he's not daunted. The biotech has had the chance to learn from earlier failures, he notes, and can steer around the big boulders in the rapids of immunotherapy R&D. He has a vision--shared by others in the oncology field--that these new therapeutic vaccines can be used in combination with the checkpoint receptor therapies to amp up the effect for patients.

Immune Design's platform technology includes a lentiviral vector that can be used to stir a swarm of cytotoxic T cell killers to fight cancer. The technology came out of the lab of Caltech's David Baltimore. Its top two programs are:

  • ID-LV305, which emerged from the biotech's  DCVex platform engineered to target dermal dendritic cells in vivo (not ex) to gear up a T cell attack
  • ID-G305, designed to generate tumor Ag-specific Th1 CD4 T cells using another discovery platform leveraging TLR4 agonism, GLAAS

Those programs will be studied individually as well as in combination.

"The checkpoint data is hugely impressive," adds Paya, "but many do not respond to checkpoint inhibitors," possibly because their immune system is not strong enough to fight the cancer. "That what we do," and in the future patients are likely to be stratified to receive a mix of therapies that include therapies like the ones Immune Design is moving into the clinic.

Quite a few Big Pharma companies would agree with him. Despite the string of failures, a number of developers have continued to focus closely on this field, adamant that it presents a good development strategy. And Paya plans to keep in touch with an eye to a strategic partnership or possibly a buyout at some point. Right now, the goal is to get proof-of-concept data that proves Immune Design is right.

- here's the press release