A protein engineering platform spawns a new IL-2 player out of Basel, with human trials looming next summer
Versant Ventures is debuting another biotech upstart this morning that its partners believe has big potential for developing pipelines in products created by its own unique platform tech. And they have their sights set first on one of the hottest targets in immuno-oncology.
The company is Bright Peak Therapeutics, launched out of Versant’s Ridgeline Therapeutics Discovery Engine in Basel, which is growing clinical development roots in San Diego. And they have $35 million of Versant A round cash to fund their drive to the clinic.
The company founders have been using tech out of Jeffrey Bode’s lab at ETH Zürich to create “designer cytokines” by chemically assembling proteins in a way that allows them to optimize function while adding conjugate handles to pursue combination products. And they have developed a keen eye to doing something that works among patients who are resistant to the first generation of checkpoints on the market.
Bode calls this a “true medicinal chemistry approach to optimizing the molecular structure of proteins…”
And they believe it’s ideal for IL-2, one of the Holy Grails in cancer R&D.
Proleukin helped establish the potency of IL-2, but also comes with a toxic profile that severely limits its use. Versant managing director Alex Mayweg and CEO Sef Kurstjens, the former CMO at Astellas, believe Bode’s approach gives them the tools to make it work right — in ways that Nektar’s controversial shot at the title fails at.
“I thought this was really disruptive,” enthuses Mayweg. “Chemists have become increasingly biologic, engineers more molecular.”
Over the past 2 years the team at Bright Peak has been working their way through an advanced preclinical program, Kurstjens tells me, that will be capped in a couple of weeks with non-human primate data. And he expects to be in the clinic next summer to start a rapid fire development program aimed at demonstrating its use both as a monotherapy as well as in combinations.
Significantly, he says, “IL-2 expands patient responsiveness for PD-L1 negative” tumors, opening up a major market opportunity — if it all works in humans.
This is how the company details its work.
Bright Peak made three modifications to its IL-2 molecule. The first was to completely block the cytokine’s ability to engage the CD25 receptor on regulatory T cells, which dramatically shifted the balance of activity towards effector T cells and eliminated vascular toxicities. The second was to enhance potency on the beta/gamma receptors, which augmented the desired effects on CD8 T cell and NK proliferation. Finally, the molecule’s half-life was significantly extended through site-specific modifications.
And they have their sights set on two other programs for IL-18 and IL-7.