Cowen, Perceptive lead $79.5M Series B for 'standout' biotech shepherding oncolytic virus to clinic
As several Big Pharma players secure biotech partners in the oncolytic virus space for new immuno-oncology combos, Cowen and Perceptive Advisors have come out with their own bet on a startup that promises to shine.
The marquee investors are joining MPM, Deerfield, Celgene, Astellas, Arkin Bio Ventures and UBS Oncology Impact Fund in backing the drug developer, Oncorus, which will now deploy the $79.5 million in Series B cash toward clinical development of its lead program. Other new investors include Surveyor Capital, Sphera Funds, IMM Investment, QUAD Investment Management, UTC Investment, SV Investment Corp and Shinhan Investment-Private Equity, the last five of which are Korean-based funds.
“Not all oncolytic viruses are the same and I think the investors that came into this round clearly saw that we were much different than others that are out there,” CEO Ted Ashburn said.
It’s a good time to be working on oncolytic virus, he adds, as the industry has come to appreciate its multifold mechanism of action. Not only does an oncolytic viral infection cause the tumor cell to disintegrate, the breakdown itself also releases antigens — and neoantigens — that induce an immune attack on cancer.
Oncorus is developing two tech platforms, each addressing different shortcomings of current approaches: The first is an “armed” herpes simplex virus that carries five transgenes, including IL-12, CCL4, FLT3L and the well-known checkpoints CTLA-4 and PD-L1, aimed at stimulating an immune response. The second is a synthetic virus composed of polynucleotides that encode for oncolytic viruses encapsulated within lipid nanoparticles.
Bristol-Myers Squibb has shown interest in the “armed” approach, dishing out $50 million upfront and promising $886 million in milestones for PsiOxus to explore the approach, where the therapy essentially changes the phenotype of the tumor cell.
That was in 2016, just a few months after Oncorus got started. In addition to an “unparalleled payload capacity,” its HSV-based ONCR-177 is also superior in balancing safety and potency, according to Ashburn.
Most of their competitors, he explained, attenuate their viruses in order to prevent infecting normal tissues. But with a microRNA technique licensed from the University of Pittsburgh, Oncorus are able to selectively tune down the viral activity in healthy cells while allowing the virus to replicate in full force within tumor cells.
“This is really meant to be the definitive intratumoral agent,” said Ashburn, who jumped from Moderna’s oncology program to take the top job at Oncorus.
Along with a team of 35, he’s looking to steer the program into the clinic early next year, starting with carcinoma of the head and neck, skin cancer, liver metastases and breast cancer. These initial indications are most susceptible to HSV, readily injectable and capture the largest market opportunities, he noted.
After that, Oncorus also plans to nominate a candidate from its synthetic virus platform, which will be administered intravenously — an attractive option for lung cancer where intratumoral administration can be dangerous, or in cases where tumors are spread out. While previous attempts at dosing oncolytic viruses repeatedly have been thwarted by neutralizing antibodies, Ashburn said their synthetic virus, which carries polynucleotides and not proteins, appears to succeed in causing an infection in animal models.
While they are focused on advancing the in-house programs with the available funds, Ashburn added the usual openness applies to partnerships or an IPO.
The new round is also bringing new directors to the company. Robert Kirkman, ex-CEO of Oncothyreon, and Spencer Nam of KSV Global are joining the board, which is chaired by co-founder and MPM partner Mitchell Finer.