Lava breaks prolonged silence with an $83M Series C and two I/O programs set for the clinic
Lava debuted in May of 2018 with $18.9 million, a platform built around something called gamma delta cells and a plan, apparently, of saying nothing else for the next two years. They never announced a program and they did not issue another press release for the next 20 months.
In May, though, the Dutch-American biotech announced a partnership on cancer bispecifics with J&J. And today, CEO Steve Hurly is ready to talk about what they’ve been working on for the last two years in Utrecht and Philadelphia – as well as the $83 million they raised from Novo, Sanofi and others to bring that work into the clinic next year.
“There was not a lot of PR, and I think the goal was to get the initial products chosen, get them running to the clinic, get the team built out before we spent too much time kind of focused on outward newsflow,” Hurly told Endpoints News. He was hired, he said, to take the company from a “quiet research group” spun off a university in Utrecht to a biotech with a US footprint and clinical programs.
Lava tries to use a population of immune cells called gamma delta T cells to attack cancer. It was a relatively nascent field when Versant first backed the company in 2018, but a slew of upstarts have since joined, including Gamma Delta, Adaptate, and Regeneron-backed Adicet Bio. In what CSO Charles Albright billed as “a major expansion” Editas last year expanded their long-running collaboration with Bristol Myers Squibb subsidiary Juno Therapeutics to cover Gamma Delta.
These cells can offer benefits over the traditional alpha-beta T cells used in CAR-T treatments and other immuno-oncology approaches. They have aspects of the innate immune system, with a built-in ability to seek and hunt out cancerous cells. “This is a highly cytotoxic cell therapy,” Hurly said.
Lava’s approach involves building bispecific antibodies that grab a receptor on gamma-delta T cells and link it with a particular protein on the tumor. The idea is that, like with other T cell bispecifics in development, it will only activate the cells in the vicinity of the cancer. That activation, though, then triggers a cascade of effects and inflammatory signals that activate both other gamma delta T cells and innate immune cells in the vicinity to attack the tumor.
Finally, Hurly said, because gamma delta T cells can function similar to antigen-presenting cells – the courier-like immune messengers that break off and ferry foreign proteins to the T and B cells that will then memorize and attack them if seen again – their therapies can help induce immune memory of the cancer, should it appear again.
The approach also allows them to target antigens that other technologies have not been able to hit, Hurly said. Their lead program, which they outlined in a Nature Cancer paper this week, goes after CD1D, a protein involved in the immune system and over-expressed in some B cell malignancies. They plan to start a Phase I/II study in the first quarter of next year, and later move into solid tumors. A second program, focused on solid tumors but with an undisclosed target, is slated to enter the clinic in Q3.
Hurly acknowledged the company has been quiet and that even their website is a “work in progress” soon to be replaced, but they’ve spent the last year ramping up a second base in Philadelphia, establishing GMP manufacturing, and landing Celgene vet Benjamin Winograd as CMO. They also landed Nobel Prize winner Jim Allison as a board member.
He expects the next two years will be far louder ones for the company, but also for the gamma delta T cell field as a whole, which could differentiate itself over other T cell approaches.
“You’re going to start turning over the cards,” he said.