Execs behind Imbruvica raise $75M for a new cancer project

Corvus CEO Richard Miller

Corvus Pharmaceuticals, led by some former Pharmacyclics executives, banked a $75 million B round to support its work on an oral treatment that uses the body's natural defenses to combat cancer.

The round, led by Rock Springs Capital Management, will help Corvus advance its early-stage checkpoint inhibitor, designed to unblind the immune system to cancerous growths. Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) and Merck ($MRK) have already won FDA approval with checkpoint blockers of their own, racking up impressive clinical successes and high-dollar sales projections along the way. But, unlike Corvus' small-molecule candidate, those therapies all require intravenous administration, and the company believes its drug could eventually shake up a blockbuster market.

First, of course, it'll need to come through in Phase I. The Burlingame, CA, company said it's on track to take its top prospect into the clinic in the first quarter of next year, evaluating the drug in a variety of tumor types both on its own and in combination with another checkpoint inhibitors. Beyond the lead asset, Corvus' Series B cash will support a preclinical program focused on T cell reprogramming and a pair of earlier stage checkpoint blockers.

Founding investors Orbimed, Novo Ventures and Adams Street Partners returned for Corvus' latest round, joined by new backers Fidelity, Roche ($RHHBY), Blackrock, T. Rowe Price and others.

Corvus CEO Richard Miller co-founded Pharmacyclics back in 1991, steering through years of up-and-down R&D before buying a biotech called Celera and with it ibrutinib, a treatment for blood cancer. That deal changed the fate of the company, as, with the help of Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ), ibrutinib became the top-selling Imbruvica, a cancer drug whose promise convinced AbbVie ($ABBV) to buy Pharmacyclics for $21 billion. Miller, however, saw only the first part of that story, leaving the company in 2008 amid widespread restructuring.

In 2014, Miller recruited former Pharmacyclics research vice president Joseph Buggy to join him in a new oncology effort focused on immunotherapy, teaming up with OrbiMed's Peter Thompson to get Corvus up and running with a $33.5 million A round.

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