Third Rock lights up Neon with next-wave cancer R&D strategy and $55M

Third Rock's Cary Pfeffer

Third Rock entrepreneurs Cary Pfeffer and Robert Tepper are jumping back into the biotech startup business. They're taking top interim posts at the newly unveiled Neon Therapeutics, spearheading an immuno-oncology R&D effort after snagging an early-stage therapy fostered at the prestigious Broad Institute and Dana-Farber. And they have a $55 million bankroll from Third Rock, Clal Biotechnology Industries and Access Industries to set up the company.

Neon will follow a road map for biotech startups that Third Rock has used repeatedly to create a full portfolio of upstarts, several of which have gone public over the last two years. They'll start building a pipeline of new drugs, relying on a brain trust of some of the leading scientists in their field. A year from now you can expect a fulltime CEO, CSO and a staff of 20 to 25. And that will be just about half of the number needed to vault into full-fledged drug developer status.

The strategy here is to leap beyond the first wave of therapeutic cancer vaccines--which have largely been disappointments so far--and T cell remedies used to drive the immune system against cancer and come up with a mix of more powerful personalized and off-the-shelf immuno-oncology products that can go the extra mile in fighting cancer.

The lead drug candidate now in the clinic is NEO-PV-01, which will be the first drug in a pipeline of new therapies that can best be visualized in four quadrants, says Pfeffer, the interim CEO.

The first quadrant will be 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. The second quadrant of therapies will look for shared neoantigens that can be used for off-the-shelf therapeutic vaccines, looking for antigens that are shared across groups of patients.

The next quadrant will center on a personalized T cell strategy, identifying T cells  that are particularly suited to attacking cancer cells, extracting them from patients, priming them for greater effect and then expanding them for use in patients. The final quadrant will be an off-the-shelf T cell product that can be used to greater effect among a broad group.

If those personalized therapies sound like they'll rival the most expensive new cancer therapies coming into the market, Pfeffer says that the cost factor has already been carefully scrutinized.

"We feel there's a good path there, a good path on cost," says Pfeffer, who helped launch a range of companies from Jounce to Agios ($AGIO). Dendreon had a personalized remedy--Provenge--that cost $50,000 to $60,000 to make, he notes, and ultimately ended up as an asset in bankruptcy court.

"We know that's way too much," says the interim CEO, who's reluctant to discuss prospective wholesale prices.

As is common for Third Rock, the company will be guided by a brain trust of international experts. They are:

  • James Allison, MD Anderson Cancer Center
  • Ed Fritsch, Neon Therapeutics
  • Nir Hacohen, Broad Institute and Massachusetts General Hospital
  • Eric Lander, Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard
  • Robert Schreiber, Washington University
  • Ton Schumacher, Netherlands Cancer Institute
  • Dr. Catherine Wu, Broad Institute and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

And once the company is set up and ready to go under the direction of a dedicated staff, Pfeffer and Tepper can go on to launch another biotech for Third Rock.