Startup Tilos to develop cancer-fighting antibody that emerged from MS research

Human T cell
Tilos Therapeutics will develop a T cell therapy for cancer that emerged from MS research.

Serendipity can play a key role in scientific discovery, and it certainly did for a group of neuroscientists at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston who were searching for clues to the development of multiple sclerosis. They were studying a population of the immune system’s T cells that normally prevent autoimmune diseases like MS, when they realized they could use the knowledge they were gaining to prompt the immune system to stop cancer.

The team found an antibody that can target that population of immune cells, called regulatory T cells (Tregs), they reported in the journal Science Immunology. In so doing, the antibody frees up the immune system to recognize and kill cancer cells. The antibody shows promise in models of colorectal cancer, glioblastoma and melanoma, they said in a press release.

The Brigham and Women’s scientists focused on antibodies that target a molecular complex on the surface of Tregs. They believed these “anti-LAP antibodies” would prove key to the development of MS, but because previous studies had shown that some LAP cells predict a poor prognosis in cancer, they decided to investigate further.

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They discovered that the anti-LAP antibody boosts the activity of certain types of T cells and enhances immune memory, according to the release. "We found that it affects multiple arms of the immune system," said Galina Gabriely, Ph.D., the lead author.

Gabriely is part of a team led by Howard Weiner, M.D., whose research led to the 2016 founding of Tilos Therapeutics, which is focusing on developing anti-LAP antibodies. Tilos will build on the lab’s work in cancer to modify the antibody for further study in humans, according to the release.

T-cell therapies have generated huge interest in oncology, with the advance of treatments developed by Kite and Juno to fight blood cancers. But the companies have run into hurdles, including concerns about side effects that have raised questions about deaths in clinical trials. What’s more, the treatments don’t work for some patients, and T-cell treatments are proving difficult to translate into effective therapies for solid tumors.

Tilos, which raised capital from Partners Innovation Fund and Boehringer-Ingelheim Venture Fund, aims to widen the applicability of immunotherapy to reach more patients—and the emergence of the new antibody out of MS research fits that mission, said Barbara Fox, Ph.D., CEO of Tilos, in the release. "I see this work as the perfect example of how research in all branches of immunology into the mechanistic underpinnings of disease can have a huge impact on other fields, such as oncology."