A former Merck director's Pfizer-backed biotech will take on his old bosses in nascent LILRB field
Only a handful of biotechs are going after LILRBs, components of the innate immune system. But after an initial crop of data out of Merck in autumn 2020, more interest sprung up in the area, and a former Merck franchise director has secured investor backing to try to catch up to his former employer.
Zurich-area biotech ImmunOs Therapeutics reeled in a $74 million Series B to take that lead program into a Phase Ia study in Australia toward the end of this year, executives told Endpoints News. The drug, dubbed IOS-1002, is a multi-agent based on human leukocyte antigens (HLAs) that go after two versions of LILRB (1 and 2) and KIR3DL1.
Merck’s antibody targets LILRB2, meanwhile, and in a Phase I solid tumor study in 2020, the Big Pharma’s drug — when combined with Keytruda — led to responses in eight out of 34 patients. Known as MK-4830, the drug is now in Phase II for non-small cell lung, colorectal, renal cell and small cell lung cancer.
Charlene Liao, CEO of LILRB competitor Immune-Onc, previously described LILRBs as the PD-1 of T cells when her startup raised nearly the same amount last March.
While ImmunOs is well behind in clinical development, the 20-employee biotech thinks the transatlantic financing round and its academic-founded science can beat out competitors.
“We expect to be able to demonstrate superior monotherapy efficacy relative to what others are doing. We expect to go into a broader indication set because we’re multitasking against multiple immune checkpoints. And we also expect to see a more durable response,” CEO Sean Smith, a former franchise director for Merck’s Europe and Canada hospital portfolio, told Endpoints.
ImmunOs will begin the Phase Ia trial in Australia and then expand into other regions, CBO and COO Jeff Abbey, the former Argos Therapeutics CEO, said in the joint interview.
“We really had our pick of investors and, as Sean said, we wanted an international syndicate to really preserve our optionality going forward so that we’re well-funded and can continue to build out the company the way we want to build it out,” Abbey said.
The fresh funds will bankroll the Phase I study and get the drug into a Phase II trial as well, the executives noted. The financing will also support another clinical entry in oncology and the biotech’s first human study foray in the autoimmune field.
ImmunOs is “reverse-engineering” its immuno-oncology program to get into the autoimmune space, explained chief development officer Steve Coats. The former AstraZeneca R&D VP is building out ImmunOs’ US operations in Gaithersburg, MD, a Mid-Atlantic city he described as an “underappreciated technology center” that is close to universities, AstraZeneca acquisition MedImmune, FDA and the NIH.
The Swiss biotech was spun out of the University of Basel and University of Zurich in 2017 and is based off the work of CMO Christoph Renner and CSO Osiris Marroquin Belaunzaran.
Tuesday’s Series B was led by new investors Samsara BioCapital, Lightspeed Venture Partners and Gimv. Mission BioCapital, GL Capital, PEAK6 Strategic Capital and Fiscus Financial also joined for the first time, adding to the original 2019 backing from Pfizer Ventures, BioMed Partners and Schroder Adveq.