Fierce 15

Creating antibody- and T cell receptor-based therapies and vaccines based on effective patient immune responses, with potential applicability across cancer, autoimmune disorders and infectious diseases

CEO: Tito Serafini
Based: Redwood City, CA
Founded: 2010
Clinical focus: immune therapy

The scoop: Pharmas like Atreca, with its broad platform technology. The startup not only counts on one as an investor, but several are partners as well including GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK), Johnson & Johnson’s ($JNJ) Janssen, Sanofi ($SNY) and Novartis ($NVS).

They, along with the Gates Foundation and several academic centers, are hoping that Atreca’s very precise reverse-engineering approach to drug development will enable advances across a range of fields. The technology could be used to create a vaccine for an infectious disease or to quiet an overactive autoimmune system.

Atreca itself is focused on immuno-oncology, with the aim of developing in other areas via partnerships. Its technology is able to deconstruct an individual patient’s immune response. Through measurement and analysis of its structure, Atreca is able to identify antibodies, T cell receptors and targets key in achieving positive patient outcomes--and to identify and generate those functional human antibodies and TCRs, even without knowledge of the antigen.

“There are two basic levers, activating or disinhibiting immune response and driving immune response to the tumor--the cells, microenvironment, vasculature. Those are the two important levers to us. Checkpoint inhibitor failure patients are the largest group needing to be helped. The lack of immune response to the tumor is one of the reasons people fail,” Atreca co-founder, President and CEO Tito Serafini told FierceBiotech.

But he cautioned that the company is not anxious to jump into a clinical deal right now with one of the pharmas angling for checkpoint inhibitor companion treatments. “That’s not our business model,” he said of such arrangements.

The idea is that responders are essentially in a virtuous cycle. Atreca is able to capture the body’s positive responses--its own reaction to an initial treatment--that further recovery. It can then use that in other patients who aren’t natural responders.

What makes Atreca Fierce: The expectation is that Atreca will be able to build a series of candidates to address public tumor antigens--those that occur relatively commonly in a given cancer population, unlike so-called private neoantigens that may be unique to an individual.

“CD20, EGFR, these are public antigens,” Serafini noted. “We are not going after individual patient antigens, but public antigens that can be widely available and used productively.”

Atreca’s candidates are engineered versions of the antibodies or TCRs. It’s found so far that most antibodies--over 50% that it generates--are binding to tumor cells. “That’s an amazing hit rate,” added Serafini.

The fact that Atreca is so deeply rooted in patient biology, and that it can capitalize and build on complex processes, even if it doesn’t fully understand what’s causing them, is unique.

“We’ve gone into a cancer patient where the immune response is correlated with a positive outcome. We have captured the immune response, generated the active B cell repertoire, analyzed it and used it to express an antibody that works in an animal model. We are talking P values that will turn your head,” Serafini said.

He added, “We have, given the gas in the tank, the ability to execute a land-grab. This is an opportunity to understand how cancer patients generate an effective anticancer immune response and for us to create targeted therapeutics.”

The company raised a hefty $56 million Series A last November; it is planning to file its first IND for a clinical trial in 2018.

Atreca is based on the science out of the Stanford lab of rheumatologist Dr. William Robinson. His research was focused on the opposite side of the cancer equation--on overactive, not underactive, immune systems. But through his research, he developed a bar code technology that can pair and recreate both heavy and light chains to recreate a native antibody expressed by a B cell with greater than 99.998% accuracy.

“One of my major personal goals is to participate in developing a therapeutic that helps humans with a disease. Our technology is identifying tumor-targeting antibodies that can provide the basis for next-generation cancer immuno-therapy,” Robinson said.

He continued, “Today, autoimmune side effects are acceptable and tolerated because the immunotherapies are keeping people alive. As we advance, people will seek effective cancer immuno-therapy without such side effects. Atreca’s approach can amplify and focus the immune response on the tumor to reduce autoimmune complications and side effects.”

Investors: Undisclosed large U.S.-based healthcare-focused fund, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Mission Bay Capital and GSK

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