Armed with Langer tech and $50M, Verseau hails new checkpoint drugs unleashing macrophages against cancer
The rising popularity of CD47 has propelled the “don’t-eat-me” signal to household name status in the immuno-oncology world: By blocking that protein, the theory goes, one can stop cancer cells from fooling macrophages. But just as PD-(L)1 merely represents the most fruitful of all checkpoints regulating T cells, Verseau Therapeutics is convinced that CD47 is one of many regulators one can modulate to stir up or tame the immune system.
“Macrophages are interesting because we were all educated probably 20 years ago that they are the big eaters in the immune system, but they’re really the orchestrators of the immune system,” CEO Christine Bunt said.
But the cells are also highly sophisticated and hard to work with, and previous approaches have focused more on depleting than mobilizing them.
So Bunt, a Big Pharma vet who’s then a partner at 20/20 HealthCare Partners, called Bob Langer at MIT hoping to find a way to work with non-T cell targeting immunotherapies. The duo had worked together to start Taris Medical — which was eventually sold to Allergan — and this time around she licensed siRNA delivery tech from Langer and Koch Institute investigator Dan Anderson for a validation and discovery platform. They also wooed Igor Feldman and Tatiana Novobrantseva, two scientists involved in creating Jounce Therapeutics.
After receiving its first injection of capital in 2017, Verseau is now ready to emerge from stealth with its lead program. Equipped with $50 million from 20/20 HealthCare Partners, 3SBio, Alexandria Venture Investments, Highlight Capital, InHarv Partners, The Mark Foundation for Cancer Research and Yonghua Capital, the biotech aims to bring their first macrophage checkpoint modulator (MCM) to the clinic.
The target, PSGL-1, is one of 23 that Verseau has identified as master switches that address the function of macrophages more fully than the anti-CD47 party has. While Bunt said she’s had discussions with Irv Weissman and applaud the work he and others have done in the field, their approach only scratches the surface.
George Golumbeski, the former BD chief at Celgene who’s kept himself busy with a string of board chair positions, offered a ringing endorsement of this approach as he jumps in to lead the board.
“The focus on myeloid cells as an avenue to broaden the therapeutic potential of immunotherapy is emerging quickly, and Verseau is positioned to make a significant impact on this field,” said Golumbeski, Chairman of the Board of Verseau. “The early data are impressive and suggest that macrophage-targeted therapeutics may become a significant advance in immunotherapy.”
While today marks Verseau’s official coming-out party, avid biotech news readers may remember that in February China’s 3SBio announced it’s licensed rights to three antibodies from the Boston-based startup. That was a somewhat awkward situation of putting the carriage in front of the horse, but now that she is free to speak about it Bunt is clearly pleased about securing a China deal early in Verseau’s life — an unconventional route of obtaining development capital.
“China is a terrific market — I’m there 4 times a year — but you need local partners if you need to conquer that market,” she said.
3SBio’s manufacturing capabilities were appealing, as was their willingness to shoulder some preclinical and clinical work, which could start to pave the way to parallel regulatory filings in the US and China.
Bunt’s stateside team of 32 recently relocated to a bigger lab in Bedford, MA to accommodate the unexpectedly speedy growth, and they anticipate hiring will at a fast clip.