Drug Development

The ‘don’t eat me’ antidote: GlaxoSmithKline, Roche and Novo back $86M startup in high-stakes CD47 showdown

CD47 is a hot prospect in the immuno-oncology world. And Washington University spinout Tioma Therapeutics plans to be a player in that booming R&D game.

It’s an older startup, seeded for years to cover preclinical work but now prepping for a turn in the clinical spotlight. Today the company landed an $86 million launch round and an experienced biotech hand who is now at the helm. RiverVest Venture Partners co-led the round along with a trio of pharma heavyweights: Novo Ventures, Roche Venture Fund and GlaxoSmithKline’s S.R. One.

John Donovan, a co-founder of Alios, acquired by J&J, has taken over as CEO.

Donovan will use the cash to advance a portfolio of antibodies designed to target CD47, based on work from a group of scientific founders that includes William A. Frazier, PhD, professor of Biochemistry, Molecular Biophysics, Cell Biology, and Biomedical Engineering at Washington University School of Medicine. The company was originally founded as Vasculox and now has a corporate office in the Bay Area and its research work close to its university home in St. Louis.

The big idea here is that blocking CD47 will help a T cell attack overcome tumor cells, making it an ideal combination to the combination therapies taking shape in the clinic.

“We’ve got three or four years of life now,” Donovan tells me. He plans to use that time, and the cash, to zero in on a proof-of-concept study that can start in H1 2017–looking to demonstrate that targeting CD47 can benefit patients with blood cancers as well as solid tumors. The plan is to build a sustainable company, adds the CEO, who got started with Tioma 6 months ago. And researchers will be examining which of a number of CD47 mechanisms will work best, and which subsets of patients will benefit the most.

Up to this point, says Donovan, John McKearn at RiverVest has been seeding the company, building the syndicate and establishing the company foundation. In the next segment of its existence, Tioma can start considering how it can best pair its drug with others in the oncology field.

It’s not alone. Just a few months ago, Stanford spinout Forty Seven gained a $75 million round to back the development of its own antibodies in the field, looking to silence a set of molecules on the surface of tumor cells that broadcast a simple “don’t eat me” signal. That work was headed by Stanford’s legendary Irv Weissman. And Canada’s Trillium Therapeutics $TRIL has a lead therapy, SIRPαFc, that also targets CD47.

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