UPDATED: Billionaires back Kite Pharma in $20M raise for cancer immunotherapies

Kite Pharma has more financial firepower to advance targeted immunotherapies that train the immune system to blast cancer cells. The Los Angeles-based biotech startup has locked in $20 million in a private placement with its new investor Alta Partners and previous backers. By converting $15 million in previous promissory notes to stock, the company has increased the first-round financing to $35 million.

The company revealed the first $15 million in 2011, and Alta has joined a syndicate that includes financier Michael Milken, Kite founder and Chairman Arie Belldegrun, TPG Group co-founder David Bonderman, Pontifax, and Commercial Street Capital. Farah Champsi of Alta Partners and Ran Nussbaum of Pontifax have joined Kite's board in connection with the financing.

Kite is focused on engineered autologous T cell therapies (eACT), which are intended to spur the immune system to attack cancer cells. It's working on the technology under a cooperative research agreement with the National Cancer Institute's surgery branch, aiming to advance a host of targeted and personalized treatments for a variety of cancers. Through the NCI agreement, investigators have already begun to test therapies from Kite in Phase I to gain proof-of-concept data, CEO Aya Jakobovits told FierceBiotech.

"We will be using the resources to advance multicenter trials for hematological and solid tumors," Jakobovits said. The company hopes to begin Phase II studies next year, she said, declining to specify which types of cancer would be targeted.

Multiple companies have begun to explore development of engineered immune cells for treating cancer after investigators at the University of Pennsylvania and elsewhere made progress with the experimental therapies in small studies with human subjects over the past couple years. Novartis ($NVS) has formed an alliance with the UPenn investigators and Celgene ($CELG) has allied with bluebird bio and cancer experts from Baylor College of Medicine.

"Kite's eACT technology has the potential to provide cancer patients with a treatment that offers a significant and durable impact on their disease," Champsi said in a release. "The product pipeline directed to different tumor types, combined with the company's experienced management team, positions Kite to become a leader in this breakthrough therapeutic modality. I am excited to work again with Drs. Belldegrun and Jakobovits to realize the potential of this product platform."

- here's the release

Editor's note: This story has been updated with a quote from Kite Pharma's CEO and background on research of cancer immunotherapies.