Johns Hopkins spinout WindMIL grabs $32.5M to fuel its work on a next-gen approach to cell therapy
New approaches to personalized cancer cell therapies are in no shortage these days. But execs at WindMIL Therapeutics, which has just closed a $32.5 million Series B round, believe they have something “truly differentiated.”
The Baltimore-based startup is tapping memory T cells residing in the bone marrow — and their innate ability to recognize tumors — to make what they call a novel class of cancer therapy. Founded out of the labs of Johns Hopkins University professors Ivan Borrello and Kim Noonan, WindMIL got its name, in part, from the result of reactivating and expanding these memory T cells extracted from the patient’s body: marrow infiltrating lymphocytes, or MILs.
While the approach is first being studied as a treatment for multiple myeloma, WindMIL is preparing to generate multiple datasets with this round of financing, CEO Brian Halak tells me. That will cover both unmodified MILs — those that have simply gone through the reactivation and expansion process — and genetically modified MILs, with the former being extended to solid tumors and the latter bring used as a cell source in CAR-T therapies. Tinkering with the already powerful MIL is thought to help it perform even in immunosuppressive tumor microenvironments.
Traditional CAR-T cells, Halak explains, are usually taken from peripheral blood lymphocytes that circulate in the blood. While potent in killing, on their own they are unable to recognize the cancer they need to kill — thus the need for chimeric antigen receptors, which bind to the tumor and fire up the T cell.
MILs, on the other hand, have native T cell receptors that recognize different elements of the tumor, requiring no genetic engineering before they could be given back to the patient to fight cancer. For Halak, a partner at Domain Associates who got his PhD in tumor immunology, this approach makes scientific sense and distinguishes WindMIL from the crowd.
That’s also why MILs can be effective in solid tumors where CAR-T has struggled, Halak says. One of the challenges of using a CAR-T approach in that space has been to discover suitable tumor antigens in solid tumors; identifying a tumor-specific antigen expressed on a cell surface and then making a CAR that recognizes it has proven elusive.
“With an unmodified MIL, we do not need to pre-identify tumor-specific antigen,” he says. “The body has already done that.”
And as a tool, MILs aren’t just replacing CAR-T therapy altogether; the scientists at WindMIL are also looking to create MIL CARs — therapies based on memory T cells rather than peripheral blood lymphocytes — which they believe can achieve better killing, more persistent effect and a safety net protecting against patient relapse when the antigen that the CAR is supposed to be targeting is lost.
All of that, on top of an ongoing Phase II multi-center, randomized trial assessing progression-free survival, will require a “significant expansion” of the current 12-member team, Halak says.
The Series B was led by Qiming Venture Partners USA, the stateside operation of a top-tier Chinese healthcare VC fund that Halak built a relationship with while working for Domain in China. Managing partner Mark McDade is joining WindMIL’s board alongside associate Anna French.
New investors Medivate Partners, Camden Partners Nexus and the Kinneret Group also joined the round, alongside old backers Domain Associates and FoxKiser.