Big Pharma backers jump on board 'Treg' cartographer's lead round with up to six candidates in the pipe
Among the wealth of emerging targets in oncology, immune system suppressing regulatory T cells — better known as “Tregs” — have earned some big-name interest in recent years. Now, a West Coast startup mapping Tregs in human tissue has scored a slate of Big Pharma backers to drive its growing pipeline into the clinic.
South San Francisco-based TRexBio emerged from stealth Tuesday with a $59 million Series A and the backing of investment funds from Big Pharma giants Eli Lilly, J&J and Pfizer, the biotech said in a release.
TRex’s platform maps the biology and function of human tissue Tregs to identify targets in oncology and autoimmune disorders. The company’s “deep biology” platforms produce high-resolution profiling of human tissues to create “tissue-like” Tregs, the company said.
The biotech says it has six preclinical candidates currently in its pipeline and is on pace to name its two lead drugs within the next year. TRex’s platform has identified 20 novel targets so far, it said.
The biotech will be led by chairman Carol Gallagher, the former CEO of Calistoga Pharmaceuticals and a partner at New Enterprise Associates for the last seven years, and Johnston Erwin, a 36-year Lilly veteran who will take the role of CEO. Erwin most recently worked as VP of corporate business development.
“The company has a significant foundation in place, with a compelling vision, dedicated team and robust science,” Erwin said in a statement. “I am excited to lead the company into its next stage of development and ultimately transform the lives of patients by bringing a new generation of immune-based therapies to the world.”
Meanwhile, TRex’s clinical program will be led by Ovid Trifan, most recently CMO and VP of development at Apexigen. Prior to that, Trifan held senior roles in clinical research at Bristol Myers Squibb and J&J, focusing on the oncology space. Trifan will gear up to bring TRex’s lead programs into the clinic by the end of the year.
The founding team is also joined by CSO Melanie Kleinschek, who will drive the boat on TRex’s discovery platform.
Tapping into immunosuppressant regulatory T cells, which control the proliferation of cytokines and T cells to maintain what’s called tissue homeostasis, has seen a wealth of interest in recent years as companies look to tamp down overactive immune systems.
In February, Merck signed away $1.85 billion to acquire Pandion Pharmaceuticals and its pipeline of drugs targeting Tregs for autoimmune conditions with the lead compound looking to bind with IL-2. That lead drug, dubbed PT101, will go after ulcerative colitis and scored a win in a Phase Ia trial earlier this year. In that 56-patient study, PT101 increased Treg levels by 260% and increased the level of high CD25-expressing Tregs, known as CD25 bright Tregs, by a whopping 6,250%, Pandion said. The drug also hits its marks on safety and tolerability.
On a much smaller scale, Novartis and RA Capital backed a $20 million seed round back in August for a company called GentiBio, which is also looking to develop Treg candidates. But those certainly aren’t the only two players in that race.