In the packed oncolytic virus space, a German biotech with a unique approach makes investors reach deeper into their wallets
When Abalos Therapeutics closed its $12 million Series A round two years ago, the company was essentially “two guys, a key and one room,” CEO Marcus Kostka jokes.
Now, the startup is 13 employees large, with an arenavirus-based cancer program nearly ready for the clinic. And that, according to investors, warrants a bit more cash.
Abalos locked down a $37.6 million Series A extension on Thursday, bringing its total raise to nearly $50 million. Seventure Partners led the round, with some help from new investors Coparion, Ventura BioMed Investors, and Hx Bio Ventures. A few players from the initial round also reached a little deeper into their wallets, including the Boehringer Ingelheim Venture Fund (BIVF), Gründerfonds Ruhr, NRW.BANK and High-Tech Gründerfonds (HTGF).
Kostka plans on using the extra cash to put the Düsseldorf, Germany-based company’s lead program into a Phase I/II trial for multiple solid tumors within the next two years.
Abalos’ science traces back to a set of brothers named Karl and Philipp Lang, who are professors at the University of Duisburg-Essen and Universität Düsseldorf, respectively. Through their research, the duo identified a specific set of mammarenaviruses that specifically infect cancer cells, leading to a strong and targeted immune response against the tumor cells.
Arenaviruses are small, and packed with tiny stolen ribosomes that resemble grains of sand — hence their name, which is derived from the Latin “arena” for “sand.” It’s also where Abalos gets its name, which is a nod to the blue dunes of Mars’ Abalos region.
While immunotherapies like CAR-T re-engineer immune cells to see and target tumors, like adding radar to a submarine, oncolytic viruses work by lighting up the tumor cells. A virus designed to propagate primarily through cancer cells is injected into a patient, and then the body carries out its natural immune response to the virus, which happens to be in the cancer cells.
What differentiates Abalos’ approach from others — like Amgen’s herpes-virus-based Imlygic — is that arenaviruses don’t themselves kill cells.
The space saw a rush of interest from Big Pharma a few years ago, with J&J striking a $1.04 billion deal to buy oncolytic virus-focused BeneVir back in 2018, and AstraZeneca and Merck making their own moves a year later. However, the field has a checkered history. Amgen’s Imlygic is still the only approved product among a slew of failures.
That won’t stop new drugmakers from trying, though. Candel Therapeutics took its oncolytic virus platform public back in July, pricing a $72 million IPO. And IconOVir unveiled earlier this year with a veteran oncology startup crew to tackle the unsolved challenge.
“We convinced additional investors in the really, highly competitive field of immuno-oncology,” Kostka said. “This gives us, really, confidence for the future.”