Elevation Oncology launches with $32.5 million Series A, gives new life to former Merrimack program
Almost two years ago, Merrimack’s high-profile seribantumab program flopped in a trial that attempted to treat non-small cell lung cancer in combination with another drug. Now, that program is getting a second chance.
Elevation Oncology announced its launch Tuesday with $32.5 million in Series A funding and seribantumab as its lead candidate. Rather than focusing on NSCLCs like Merrimack, Elevation will aim to use the compound to treat solid tumors with the rare NRG1 genomic fusion.
The funding was led by Aisling Capital, and other investors included Vertex Ventures, Qiming Venture Partners USA, Driehaus Capital Management and BVF Partners.
First acquired by Elevation in July 2019 for up to $58 million, seribantumab is a monoclonal antibody that binds to human epidermal growth factor receptor 3, or Her3. The candidate was just one in a long string of clinical busts for Merrimack, ultimately resulting in the biotech selling several assets and laying off all its staff and executives. Merrimack tested seribantumab specifically in combination with docetaxel and failed to show improvements in progression-free survival compared to docetaxel treatments alone.
But Elevation and its founder, Shawn Leland, are focused on a different approach for their own program. Whereas Merrimack researched how seribantumab can treat patients with Her3 amplifications and overexpression, Elevation is repurposing the compound to set its sights on the NRG1 fusion that is more active in driving tumor growth, Leland said.
After running its due diligence, Elevation determined seribantumab would be a good fit for the biotech from both a “biological and operational perspective,” Leland said. The company wanted a candidate that had potential to treat these fusions and had previously been tested in Her3 patients, and seribantumab fit Leland’s bill.
As part of its launch, Elevation also initiated a Phase II study to research the efficacy of seribantumab in these new NRG1 targets. The study, dubbed CRESTONE, is already enrolling patients, and the key thing for Leland is the enrollment of any patient with an NRG1-expressing solid tumor, regardless of which kind of cancer they have.
Though the NRG1 fusion only appears in 0.2% of patients with solid tumors, it is most commonly expressed in certain types of lung and pancreatic cancers. Leland said he believes these patients will better benefit from Elevation’s seribantumab program because, unlike a typical T cell immunotherapy treatment, the study is more honed in on specific tumors.
“The whole desire here is to be able to identify patients most likely to benefit upfront … and then treat them with the drug that we know is biologically tailored to their disease,” Leland said. “And based upon that biology, that should shut down the signaling and growth of their cancer cells.”
In terms of competitors in the NRG1 fusion field, Elevation is measuring itself against Rain Therapeutics’ tarloxotinib and Merus’ MCLA-128. Both of these programs have reached the Phase I/II stage, putting CRESTONE at or near the same point in development. Preclinical data from CRESTONE will be submitted for publication later this year.
But given that it’s still early for these programs, right now it’s anybody’s game. In the meantime, Elevation hopes to add similar candidates as it expands its portfolio and continues CRESTONE testing with its NRG1-focused recruitment.
“By having those next-generation sequencing results, it allows you to understand your tumor and what’s causing it to grow, and we believe every patient should be entitled to that,” Leland said.