Building an immunotherapy company from the ground up
Based: Cambridge, MA
CEO: Cary Pfeffer (interim)
Clinical focus: Cancer immunotherapies
The scoop: There is no hotter field in oncology today than cancer immunotherapies. A trio of new immunotherapies captured the center stage at ASCO this summer. And now the biotech startup specialists at Third Rock Ventures are all in on Jounce, one of the biggest discovery gambles in the industry, which will try to go another step or two further ahead.
What makes Jounce fierce: Back in February, Third Rock spread the word that it had assembled a stellar group of specialists in the field to tackle the science of immunotherapy from three different directions. The VC group agreed to put in $47 million, one of the biggest rounds of the first half, staffed it with three of their top in-house operatives--including Cary Pfeffer as acting CEO, Dr. Robert Tepper (former Millennium Pharmaceuticals R&D chief) as interim chief scientific officer and Bob Kamen, former president of Abbott Bioresearch Center, as the interim chief technology officer.
Then they rolled out their roster of experts: James Allison, chair, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center Department of Immunology, whose work is credited for creating a foundation for Yervoy; Padmanee "Pam" Sharma, another MD Anderson Cancer Center veteran; Thomas Gajewski, a professor at the University of Chicago; Drew Pardoll, co-director, cancer immunology and hematopoiesis program, Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, Johns Hopkins University; and Louis Weiner, chair of the department of oncology at Georgetown University Medical Center.
The biotech has all the ingredients of a classic Third Rock startup: talent allied with a big bankroll for breaking new ground in a hot field of therapeutic development. This perfectly fits Third Rock's description of a space where they can skip the incremental benefits and shoot straight at the kind of improvements that can be "astounding."
The R&D strategy is multilayered. There's a focus on the checkpoint regulator field, like the PD-1 drugs lambrolizumab and nivolumab, which are designed to remove the brakes from the immune system and get an attack going on cancer cells. Next comes the costimulatory molecules that can rev up an immune attack. And finally there's the microenvironment modifier, switching a microenvironment from cold to hot in a way that can be recognized by the immune system, like a red flag to a bull.
"Things are going great," Pfeffer tells FierceBiotech in an update. The company has recruited a staff of 18 to work on four preclinical programs. By the end of this year that roster should expand to 20, with another 10 to 15 to fill out the ranks in 2014.
Pfeffer says it's still too early to start laying out clinical timelines for these programs. But it's not too early to start talking about pharma partnerships.
"Do we need to be in the clinic to land a partnership? Absolutely not," says Pfeffer. Every pharma company out there that wants to be seen as a serious contender in oncology is jumping into the game.
"The kind of partnership we're looking for now is something pretty significant; a transformative partnership like Agios did shortly after it launched. We think we can do that, although you never know. We're certainly well-financed."
Third Rock, formed from a nucleus of players like Mark Levin and Kevin Starr who benefited from the $8.8 billion Takeda deal to buy Millennium, has become a biotech development engine, using expert discussions to identify which scientific directions they want to take. Their support provides Jounce with the kind of backing that will give it every advantage in a fast-changing field, where oncology R&D programs are being better defined and compressed along shortened development timelines. That gives this startup a much better chance of blooming faster than most other companies that sprang up since New Year's.
Investor: Third Rock
Third Rock bankrolls cancer immunotherapy upstart with $47M A round
-- John Carroll (email)