Third Rock's Jounce bags $56M to hit the gas in immuno-oncology

Jounce Therapeutics CEO Richard Murray

While Merck ($MRK) and Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) grab global headlines with treatments designed to make it harder for cancer to hide from the immune system, Cambridge, MA's Jounce Therapeutics is coming at it from the other end, crafting a therapy that revs up the body's natural defenses to attack tumors. And the promise of that idea helped the biotech rope in a massive $56 million B round, cash that will help get its top prospect into clinical trials.

Like the blockbuster-in-waiting PD-1 therapies Keytruda and Opdivo, Jounce's lead asset is an antibody. But instead of halting any natural process, the treatment is designed to amplify a protein called inducible T cell costimulator, or ICOS, which regulates immune response. By agonizing ICOS, Jounce figures it can galvanize T cells and make a difference for cancer patients not adequately served by current immunotherapies.

The company, a Fierce 15 honoree, got started in 2013 with a $47 million A round courtesy of Third Rock Ventures, spending the ensuing years building a translational research platform designed to serve as "an atlas of the immune system in human tumors," CEO Richard Murray said. That led to the ICOS program, based on work from famed cancer researchers and Jounce co-founders James Allison and Pam Sharma, and the company has since fleshed out a handful of programs aimed at other immune targets.

Now, with $56 million more from Redmile Group, Wellington Management Company, Foresite Capital Management and others, Jounce has the money it needs to get its lead candidate into clinical trials and promote one of its early-stage assets into preclinical development, Murray said.

For the ICOS program, Jounce believes its antibody has potential both as a monotherapy for patients not responding to a PD-1 blockade and as a natural complement to the likes of Keytruda and Opdivo, letting them remove the brakes on the immune system before hitting the gas.

And, true to the Third Rock ethos, Jounce is pouring money into its in-house product engine with the aim of churning out more potential therapies and becoming a sustainable innovator.

"This company has really benefited greatly from a terrific set of founders who are now our advisers," Murray said. "When history books are written on immunotherapy, many of our founders' and advisers' names will be prominently featured."

- here's the release

Special Report: FierceBiotech's 2013 Fierce 15 - Jounce Therapeutics