Immunocore runs long distance to discover immunotherapies
Based: Abingdon, U.K.
CEO: James Noble
Clinical focus: Immunotherapy
The scoop: It took more than a decade for Big Pharma companies to take serious notice of Immunocore's T cell receptor technology, but now the phones are ringing relentlessly with calls from investors and prospective collaborators. Immunotherapy has become the next big frontier for cancer treatment, and Immunocore has designed therapies to recruit immune cells to attack otherwise clandestine tumor cells. In recent months, its novel approach has attracted oncology deals with Roche's ($RHHBY) Genentech and GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK).
What makes Immunocore fierce: Immunocore has emerged as one of the potential stars of the red-hot immunotherapy field, which has caught fire in recent years as big ideas about activating the body's immune system to treat cancer and other diseases turned into powerful potential drugs.
Like the tumor cells its therapies target, Immunocore had been flying under the radar while other companies shined. So far this year Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY), which markets the anticancer immunotherapy Yervoy, and Merck ($MRK) have made much of the major news in the field with their potential breakthrough PD-1 drugs that unleash the immune system on cancer cells.
Then things got interesting at Immunocore in a flash. In June the Genentech unit of Swiss giant Roche, which is the world's biggest provider of cancer drugs, struck a collaborative deal with Immunocore focused on cancer immunotherapies. Quickly thereafter GlaxoSmithKline stepped up for a similar deal with Immunocore in July.
Immunocore's progress has sparked a lot of interest. "We've been besieged over the past year by investment bankers wanting to take us public and by venture firms wanting to invest," CEO James Noble says. "The difference is unbelievable from two years ago."
Noble has declined such overtures. Immunocore, which had raised about $50 million mostly from two angel investors prior to the two pharma deals, is now funding its growing 60-person operation with Big Pharma money. Genentech agreed to pay $10 million to $20 million for each target involved in its agreement with the startup, and the preclinical milestones from GSK add up to £142 million ($212 million).
Who knew that it would take 14 years from the 1999 spinoff of Immunocore's T cell receptor program from Oxford University for Big Pharma to arrive? And where were all those venture capitalists in 2006, when the initial commercial vehicle Avidex was going broke and Noble was forced to sell the company to the German biotech Medigene?
To hear Noble, you can blame the slow process of inventing the essential ingredients for Immunocore's therapies from scratch. 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.
By 2006, Avidex's VC backers, led by Advent Venture Partners, were through funding the company, even though the startup was in early clinical development with an oral anti-CD80 drug called RhuDex that was independent of the T cell receptor program. They pushed Noble to sell the company, he says, and he did so in a deal with publicly traded Medigene that valued the startup at €50 million.
Two years later Noble and Jakobsen wanted to spin off the T cell technology from Medigene, which was more focused on the RA candidate. Noble negotiated the spinoff of the technology into a new entity called Adaptimmune, which develops cellular therapies against cancer, and then managed to get the German owners to cut loose the immunotherapy program to form Immunocore.
(Immunocore and Adaptimmune are sister companies, and Noble and Jakobsen serve as chief executive and chief scientist of both outfits.)
The long campaign has given Immunocore a claim on some precious terrain in the immunotherapy field with compounds known as ImmTACs. The compounds link the engineered T cell receptors, designed to attach to surface peptides on cancer cells, with fragments of anti-CD3 antibodies that recruit the body's T cells into action against cancer.
Clever cancer cells have adapted ways to hide. Tumor-driving proteins inside cancer cells leave only small traces of their existence on the outer limits of the cells in the form of surface peptides. T cells, the attack dogs of the immune system, typically miss these peptides. Yet Immunocore's engineered T cell receptors pick up on as few as 10 of the surface peptides and can be tailored to find specific peptides at that.
"Immunocore's competitive advantage is its ability to engineer extremely potent T Cell Receptors and link them to an antibody fragment, anti-CD3, which can activate the immune system to kill the targeted cancer cell," Genentech's Kinney Horn, who was part of the partnership group that struck the deal, said in an email. "Immunocore's focus on developing the ImmTAC platform with the goal of selectively targeting only the cancerous over healthy cells offers the potential to meaningfully advance the standard of care and provide a benefit to cancer patients."
Nobody knows for sure whether this grand idea for killing cancer works. Yet Noble and his team have staked out 25 peptide targets that are unique to cancer cells, and they plan to make the most of the unique ability of their T cell receptors to home in on them, potentially treating many of the most devastating cancers.
Immunocore has held onto full rights to the most advanced ImmTAC in its pipeline, IMCgp100, which is under investigation in a Phase I clinical trial in melanoma patients. Noble says he expects to report data from the study at a medical meeting late this year. And the technology has vast potential in fighting infectious diseases, too.
Investors: Angel investors such as Nicholas Cross, Immunocore's chairman, have supported research of the company's technology dating back more than a decade.
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-- Ryan McBride