Unum hits the gas on next-gen CAR-T tech after banking $65M round

Unum CEO Charles Wilson

Hot on the heels of executing a $645 million deal to work with Seattle Genetics on a portfolio of antibody-coupled T cell receptor programs, Cambridge, MA-based Unum Therapeutics has taken the wraps off a whopping $65 million crossover round aimed at fueling their drive into the clinic with their next-gen approach to CAR-T.

The round and the deal combined should help set the stage for an IPO, says CEO Charles Wilson, provided the stars and market conditions remain aligned for the company. "It's not imminent," he adds.

Right now, the focus at Unum is on clinical execution. The new money gives the biotech enough fuel to fund a series of proof-of-concept studies over the next three years.

"Very quickly, we expect to be building out a broad pipeline," says Wilson, who has had a front row seat on the go-go pace of development among CAR-T's pioneers. Wilson is the former deals chief for Novartis, which is pushing its own program at the University of Pennsylvania at a record pace.

The first step is to complete a safety test of its CAR-T program, which uses RNA instead of a virus to tailor T cells. That way, the cells are essentially disarmed after a week. Once that safety test is done, then Unum can get started using a virus to make permanent alterations to the T cells.

Like the first wave of companies to hit the clinic, Unum is developing an autologous, personalized approach that uses a patient's own cells, engineering them to fight cancer. But its technology is designed to make it safer, easier to titrate without spurring collateral damage and much simpler to manufacture with a standard production plan that could rapidly scale up to make industrial-sized quantities.

The pioneers in this field--like Juno, Novartis and Kite--are all up and running, starting with a promising CD-19 focus in cancer. Unum and its rivals in the next-wave field, though, are squaring off over taking this technology and beating down the barriers to its uses in fighting cancer. Conceding the CD-19 field to the pioneers, Unum doesn't want to be limited to a single antigen or a few tumor targets. Instead, it wants to leverage well known mAb tech and "augment any antibody-directed anti-cancer therapy with a cell-surface antigen," as Atlas partner and Unum board member Bruce Booth noted in a column on the company launch. "Hence the name, derived from e pluribus unum--'out of many, one.'"

Under Unum's recent deal, Seattle Genetics is applying its extensive portfolio of tumor-specific antibodies to Unum's next-gen T-cell cause. And it's buying in to the deal, paying $25 million as an upfront and making a $5 million equity investment in Unum for the chance to position itself with an ally in this hot new cancer field. Another $615 million in milestones is also in play for up to three antibody-coupled T-cell receptor programs.

Unum will take the lead on preclinical and clinical activities through Phase I, then split the work with Seattle Genetics for the rest of the ride. The two companies will also co-commercialize any products that come out of the deal in the U.S., with Seattle Genetics taking the rights outside the U.S. And Wilson sees an opportunity for "many" more such partnerships.

This new money gives Unum the cash needed to start acquiring its own antibodies, says the CEO. And with his background in partnering at Novartis, new deals are in the offing.

Unum's founding investors--Fidelity Biosciences, Atlas Venture and Sanofi-Genzyme BioVentures, which put up the A round--all came back in on the second round. New investor New Leaf Venture Partners led the round, with participation from additional new investors Brace Pharma Capital, Cowen Private Investments, Jennison Associates, Novo A/S, Sabby Management, Sectoral Asset Management, and Wellington Management.

- here's the release