Juno stuffs its CAR-T war chest with another $134M fundraise

Juno Therapeutics CEO Hans Bishop

Superlatively well-funded biotech startup Juno Therapeutics has bagged another $134 million in venture cash, bringing its 12-month total north of $300 million as it races to advance a new therapeutic approach that could transform cancer treatment.

The latest round, a little more than four months removed from the close of a $176 million Series A, comes courtesy of an undisclosed group Juno said includes 10 public funds and all of its prior major investors, a list that includes Arch Venture Partners, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and the Alaska Permanent Fund.

That much that fast is a rarity in biotech--and most other industries--but things have always been different for Juno. The company is not the product of a single licensing or the result of an asset-specific spinout. Instead, Juno is the nimble brainchild of oncology luminaries at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and its launch, in late 2013, came with a $120 million venture commitment and some promising early data on a cutting edge method for fighting cancer.

Juno's technology uses lab-made chimeric antigen receptors to reprogram a patient's own T cells and transform them into cancer-fighting agents, called CAR-T immunotherapies. The resulting treatment is re-injected into patients, at which point the CAR-T cells multiply and galvanize an immune system attack on tumors while training the body to protect against cancer recurrence. Juno has three announced programs in the field, working through Phase I/II trials in cancers of the blood with plans to fan out across a range of indications.

And the biotech will likely need every dollar of its head-turning fundraise to contend with global pharma giant Novartis ($NVS), its principal CAR-T rival in both clinic and courtroom.

The Swiss drugmaker is developing a similar therapy in CTL019, an engineered T cell treatment that won the FDA's coveted breakthrough therapy designation in June thanks to positive early results against leukemia. Novartis, working with the University of Pennsylvania, is in the throes of a legal battle with Juno and its scientific benefactors over the rights to certain aspects of CAR-T technology, but most figure the parties will settle up in some fashion before their spat threatens to disrupt the treatments' path to market.

And that market is likely to crowd in a hurry, as the promise of CAR-T has lured a bevy of players into the field.

Last year, oncology heavyweight Celgene ($CELG) reached out to gene therapy pioneer bluebird bio ($BLUE) to get to work in the space, and Santa Monica, CA's Kite Pharma ($KITE) grossed more than $140 million in a June IPO on the strength of its approach to T cell modification. The same month, Pfizer ($PFE) made a splash in CAR-T by striking a sweeping deal with France's Cellectis to get its hands on some tailored immunotherapies in exchange for billions in potential future payments.

But despite the mounting competition, Juno remains confident in its science, its talent and its ability to raise money to support the two, CEO Hans Bishop told Forbes' Matthew Herper.

"We believe the winner in this space is going to be about doing great science, and to do that you have to be well-resourced," Bishop said.

- read the release
- here's the Forbes' story