Boehringer Ingelheim VC backs plan to send GMO bacteria after tumors
Chris Thanos wants to send bacteria after your tumors.
Specifically, he wants to send salmonella after your tumors, a genetically modified form of the microbe that he and his team have neutered and retrofitted with genetic warheads. It’s an attractive idea, at least to Boehringer Ingelheim Venture Fund and Panacea Venture, who today co-led a $34 million Series A round for Thanos’s Berkeley-based company, Actym Therapeutics.
“Think about a cocktail therapy in a single drug,” Thanos, founder and CEO of the new company, told Endpoints News. “These engineered microbes can easily do that because you can load up a desired combination of payloads.”
The idea is a riff off oncolytic viruses. This form of treatment, first approved in 2015, infects a patient with a virus that, in turn, triggers an immune response against certain tumors. The problem, Thanos said, is that they can be given only once and they affect the entire body, potentially causing off-target effects as dosing increases.
The idea behind salmonella and other bacteria — and Actym is not alone in this idea — is that you can engineer to selectively grow in tumor micro-environments, which are immune-suppressing. When the cancer cells consume the bacteria, they give off viral-like genetic material that trigger an immune response, attracting T Cells and monocytes that go after the tumor.
The idea, Thanos said, is to get the homing accuracy of bacteria with the immune signaling of viruses.
“It’s the best of both worlds,” he said.
The company is still early stage. Thanos, who previously worked at Halozyme and Sutro, and two other co-founders incubated over the past three years in Berkeley. They’re up to 8 employees and are planning to announce a drug candidate by the end of the year, although Thanos acknowledged that Covid-19 could delay that timeline. They’ll start out trying to get the bacteria to stimulate type 1 interferon. The goal, though, is to be able to hook up almost anything to the microbes: cytokines, alternative antibody scaffolds, even cytotoxic chemicals. The last approach would act like an antibody-drug conjugate, allowing high doses of chemotherapy to be delivered directly to tumors.
”The sky’s the limit,” Thanos said.