Manufacturing, Startups, Venture

Google helps boost Gritstone’s neoantigen R&D gamble to $195M as researchers prep for first human study

Gritstone Oncology launched one of the most prominent neoantigen R&D efforts in the industry with a $102 million mega-round two years ago. And now the biotech is lining up its first big clinical foray — while laying the foundation for an eventual market launch — with another mega-round that weighs in at $92.7 million.

This biotech is a prime example of the venture community’s willingness to go deep and long in an attempt to deliver a leading company in the hunt for new technologies to fight life-threatening diseases. And part of that gamble includes constructing new manufacturing facilities that can support the development of personalized therapies — a blueprint that Gritstone is committed to.

Andrew Allen, Gritstone

Lilly Asia Ventures took the lead on the round, with participation from GV (formerly Google Ventures), Beijing-based Trinitas Capital and Alexandria Venture Investments, all new investors and an example of the growing amount of Chinese investment capital making its way into US biotechs. All existing investors are also all participating in the round, including Versant Ventures, The Column Group, Clarus Funds and Frazier Healthcare Partners.

Some of their new money will go to completing a 43,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Pleasanton, CA.

Biotech goals don’t get much more ambitious than what you’ll see at Gritstone. Researchers are building a platform tech aimed at identifying the rare mutations that can be translated into personalized neoantigen therapies for a slate of cancers. And the biotech is preparing to take its first shot at non-small cell lung cancer with a trial set to launch in the middle of next year.

You can find more than 300 mutations in a patient’s exome that can be relevant to the unique neoantigen profiling process for lung cancer, Gritstone CEO Andrew Allen tells me. But only 1% — or three of them — will actually have therapeutic value. Finding that needle in the proverbial haystack requires the 65 staffers at Gritstone to do their own sequencing, while developing their own in-house deep learning technology that can be effective in spotting the right mutations.

This new round gets Gritstone into the clinic, with proof-of-concept data scheduled to arrive in 2019 and the initial manufacturing facilities they’ll need for the weeks-long approach required to go from biopsy to sequencing and manufacturing and then back to the patient in an intramuscular injection therapy.

Allen is acutely aware of the variety of efforts underway to get out in front and deliver the first neoantigen commercial program. He says there are two key measures that will dictate which company is first.

First up: Identifying the right neoantigens for the treatment. Number two: Learning how to deliver the antigens in a way that drives the most effective assault of CD8-positive T cells on cancer cells. That weaponization tech led Gristone to focus on viral vectors in a “highly adjuvanted” approach to therapy.

There are some similarities between this nascent field and CAR-T, the new personalized cancer therapy that has just seen the first big OK. But Allen tells me there are some important distinctions.

One of the biggest, he says, is that Gritstone wants its therapies delivered in community centers where most of the actual treatment in the US is done — rather than the academic centers and handful of qualified locations where CAR-T will be administered.

That all depends on a new tech that has to be built into a commercial model from the ground up. What’s that going to cost?

“We haven’t worked out the final number,” Allen tells me. A lot will depend on the magnitude of clinical effect. “What we do know is that to do this seriously is a major undertaking.”

Certainly an IPO is likely, when the time is ripe and there’s something tangible for generalists to look at. Partnerships are a distinct possibility, which Allen says will probably be built around “shared” antigens, where therapies can be developed for specific buckets of patients rather than on a one-on-one basis.

In the meantime, the venture partners appear ready to go all the way with this one.



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