UPDATED: T-cell pioneer Immunocore scores a record-breaking $320M round

Immunocore CEO Eliot Forster

In another example of the big bets being made on reengineering T cells to attack cancer, Oxford, U.K.-based Immunocore has come up with a monster $320 million venture round designed to push the pipeline well past positive early-stage data for its lead therapy.

Two big new investors in the region--Woodford Investment Management and Malin--took a piece of the action in the record European deal, illustrating some of the significant new capital sources that are being developed in the U.K. And Eli Lilly ($LLY), a close development partner with Immunocore, also stepped in along with RTW Investments and others.

Immunocore has been making a reputation for itself working on TCRs, or T cell receptors, a field closely related to CAR-T treatments. Like Juno Therapeutics ($JUNO), Kite ($KITE), and others, Immunocore believes that TCRs can broaden the drug targets available to developers, particularly when it comes to branching into new drugs for solid tumors. Eli Lilly bought into that with a partnership deal in 2014, following a path blazed by GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) and Roche's ($RHHBY) Genentech. Just last April, AstraZeneca ($AZN) struck its second deal with Immunocore, pairing its closely watched checkpoint inhibitor MEDI-4736 and the anti-CTLA-4 tremelimumab with the biotech's lead program. 

FierceBiotech named Immunocore a Fierce 15 company in 2013.

The big round marks an important step forward for the U.K. biotech scene. Neil Woodford's investment group has emerged as a major player in the field since he left Invesco, and he has a close partner in Malin, which was formed by ex-Elan ($ELN) chief Kelly Martin. Combined with some transatlantic cash from Lilly they were able to come up with the industry's second-largest venture round globally, behind the $450 million raised by Moderna. The round signals that the country has enough local investment cash to sustain growing companies without forcing a move to Nasdaq or the much riskier London Stock Exchange.

"I'm encouraged," says Forster, who's also chairman of the ambitious MedCity initiative. "Things are changing." The U.K. has had a great scientific reputation for generations, he notes, but risk capital has been in short supply. Over the last few years, though, Woodford, Malin and others have started to fill the gap, as the scientific leaps allowed by decoding the genome has spawned a multitude of new drug development programs. And Forster also notes that he was able to draw in global capital to complete the record-breaking round, which now gives the company enough working cash to go it alone for the next three to 5 years.

The money being showered on Immunocore came after many long years of struggling. Immunocore Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Bent Jakobsen began the painstaking work of engineering soluble T cell receptors at Oxford in 1993, and his solution that formed the basis of Avidex in the late '90s needed more years of expensive renovation. But Avidex's financial backers couldn't stay the course, forcing a sale to Medigene that valued the company at 50 million pounds.

James Noble, one of the execs, later arranged for a spinoff into two separate companies, Adaptimmune ($ADAP)--which recently completed a $191 million IPO--and Immunocore. And after a stint as CEO of Immunocore, Noble made the jump to run Adaptimmune.

The long campaign has given Immunocore a claim on some precious terrain in the immunotherapy field with compounds known as ImmTACs. They use their technology to first enhance the receptor on the T cell, stabilize the T cell using an interchain disulfide bond buried in the core of the T cell--to prevent an immune response--and then arm it with an anti-CD3 antibody fragment to target the cancer cells.

Their lead drug is IMCgp100. Back in April investigators reported that in one cohort of 14 patients enrolled in a Phase I/II study, they recorded four objective responses for HLA-A2 positive cases with stage four or unresectable stage three melanoma.

Forster adds that Immunocore is already engaged in all the discovery pacts it wants. But its partnerships with Lilly and AstraZeneca also point to the potential this technology has working in combination with other drugs, and more combo collaborations may well lie ahead of the company, which now has 160 staffers. That number is likely to grow in the coming months, says the CEO, as the company manages its steadily swelling ranks and bright prospects.

- here's the release

Special Report: FierceBiotech's 2013 Fierce 15 - Immunocore