Fresh off $1B+ Merck deal, Janux locks down first private fundraise for its T cell engagers
Janux Therapeutics had kept a relatively low profile since being founded back in 2017 but burst onto the scene late last year when Merck plunked down more than $1 billion in promised milestones for its T cell engagers. Now, less than three months later, the small biotech has clinched its first round of private funding led by some prominent backers.
As it prepares its first programs for INDs, Janux completed a $56 million Series A on Wednesday morning, with Jay Lichter’s Avalon Ventures joining forces with new investors OrbiMed and RA Capital Management to fund the company. Janux will use the cash to primarily advance its T cell engagers targeting PSMA and TROP2, which are expected to hit the clinic in the first and second quarters of 2022, respectively.
CEO David Campbell told Endpoints News that the Merck deal, on top of the data that had already impressed a number of investors, helped get Wednesday’s financing across the finish line.
All the buzz has centered around Janux’s T cell engager platform called TRACTr, which the company says can develop drugs that alter their pharmacokinetics depending on the context. Upon activation in a tumor, its candidates are converted from their original form — which can remain in the bloodstream for over 100 hours — to a T cell engager that only circulates for less than an hour.
Janux also says any T cell engager that escapes from the tumor microenvironment is quickly eliminated, further tamping down toxicity levels and preventing buildup in healthy tissue. And the company also has monkey data that show inhibition of cytokine release at greater than 200-fold higher doses, and greater than 2,000-fold higher plasma levels, than earlier generation T cell engagers.
These three factors, improved pharmacokinetics, lower toxicity and better prevention of cytokine release, are where Janux is hoping to differentiate itself from other T cell engager platforms, Campbell said. That’s true not just for its PSMA and TROP2 programs, but the other candidates further down the pipeline like an EGFR engager.
Janux plans to pursue prostate cancer with the PSMA program, with Campbell saying their preclinical data have shown a “clear” path forward in the indication. Researchers are going to start evaluating the candidate as a monotherapy in later lines of the disease, but in the future may look to expand the target patient population by combining the program with checkpoint inhibitors.
“We’re going to come in with a once-weekly dose drug that we expect, based upon the preclinical data that we’ve generated, will be able to circumvent the cytokine release syndrome that has impacted many of the programs in this particular space,” Campbell said.
The TROP2 candidate is likely to go after triple negative breast cancer and non-small cell lung cancer. TROP2 is the same target for the Gilead/Immunomedics drug Trodelvy, whose approval in triple negative breast cancer this past April has helped Janux validate the target as a viable approach, Campbell said.
Campbell said Janux is planning to offset this candidate’s first clinical trial by a quarter simply because the company is still building out its small staff from 10 employees to about 35 to 40. Wednesday’s funding will help them accomplish that goal as well, ensuring both programs can hit the ground running when their first human trials eventually launch next year.
Existing investors Bregua and Correlation Ventures also contributed to the Series A.