Elevation Oncology bags $65M to push failed Merrimack drug through PhII
Shawn Leland hadn’t even heard of NRG1 as an oncology target until he was sitting in a presentation at ESMO 2018 in Munich. Alex Drilon, an oncologist at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, was presenting on targeted therapies for lung cancer — and Leland was enthralled.
“He put up one slide within that presentation that described the target of NRG1 gene fusion and the fact that they were potentially druggable with a HER3 monoclonal antibody approach,” Leland said.
The wheels began turning. After the presentation, he pulled a bunch of literature on NRG1 fusion and began researching.
In July, Leland unveiled a startup, Elevation Oncology, with a $32.5 million Series A round and a clinical candidate for solid tumors with NRG1 genomic fusion. And on Wednesday, he landed a $65 million Series B to complete enrollment in the candidate’s Phase II trial, and a promotion. Leland’s taking over from interim CEO Steve Elms, who will remain chair of Elevation’s board of directors. And Drilon, who inspired Leland at ESMO, is on the biotech’s scientific advisory board.
“There is this unique ability to go out and get a license or acquire a HER3 monoclonal antibody and repurpose it for this genetically defined patient population, where a HER3 monoclonal antibody approach was very much tailored to the disease biology,” Leland said.
The biotech acquired its lead candidate, Merrimack’s high-profile seribantumab, last year for up to $58 million. The drug previously flunked a Phase II trial evaluating its efficacy in non-small cell lung cancer in combination with docetaxel — but unlike Merrimack, Elevation isn’t focused on HER3 amplifications and overexpression. It’s targeting that NRG1 fusion, which Leland says is more active in driving tumor growth.
“If you’re able to identify … these NRG1 gene fusions, it’s highly unlikely that they have another genomic aberration that may be leading to the growth of their cancer,” Leland said.
Merrimack’s seribantumab flop was one of several for the company. After the candidate and docetaxel failed to show improvements in the progression-free survival of NSCLC patients compared to docetaxel treatments alone, the biotech added it to the scrap heap and slashed 60% of its staff. Last July, the company’s executives fled the scene.
Leland is now hoping to turn around an accelerated approval for seribantumab with results from the biotech’s open-label Phase II CRESTONE study. The Series B will be used to finish enrolling a total of 75 patients across three cohorts.
The round was led by Cormorant Asset Management, venBio Partners, with help from a slate of new and old investors including: Boxer Capital of Tavistock Group, Janus Henderson, Samsara Biocapital, and Vivo Capital, Aisling Capital, Vertex Ventures, Qiming Venture Partners USA, Driehaus Capital Management, and BVF Partners. Back-to-back raises and involvement from Cormorant, which is known as a crossover player, would typically indicate an IPO is on the way. But Elevation responded:
A future IPO is a possibility, although the Company has no immediate plans to file. The Series B positions the Company with a strong base of crossover investors to support a public listing if that is the most favorable route for additional funding, based on market conditions at the time.
“There’s limited to no options for these patients, and the ability for them to get a therapy on a clinical trial, with an agent like seribantumab that’s uniquely tailored to this disease biology associated with the NRG1 fusion, we believe is key,” Leland said. “I think it’s one of those targets that, you know, caught a lot of attention as of late, but up until probably the past 12 to 24 months prior to that, there was very little known about NRG1.”
Elevation faces competition from Rain Therapeutics’ tarloxotinib and Merus’ MCLA-128, both of which are also in Phase II. The race is tight, but Leland expects to read out interim data by mid-2021.