Bayer, Longwood back star researcher's deep dive into the tumor microenvironment for new I/O targets
From PD-1 targeting to the RAS pathway to the STING complex, Thomas Gajewski has spent the past two decades of his career decoding the various ways the immune system can be unleashed to defend against cancer. So when the University of Chicago professor comes around to putting all his findings into a new platform for finding new targets, VCs and pharma groups alike pay attention.
“He’s been studying T cells for 20 years, plus he’s one of the world’s leaders if not the world leader in the space,” David Steinberg, partner at Longwood Fund, said. “Furthermore, let me add he did a lot of the foundational research and also some of the seminal clinical trials in the existing set of I/O agents. He understands the space really well, he understands the current strengths, and I think he understood really well what was missing, so he knew where to look.”
Longwood is launching Pyxis Oncology with Gajewski and John Flavin, a seasoned life sciences entrepreneur and former venture capitalist himself. The initial Series A comes in at $22 million; Leaps by Bayer took the leading role while Agent Capital and Ipsen chipped in.
As can be expected from a startup that’s rapidly beefing up its operations and solidifying its IP foundation, Steinberg, the CEO, is tight-lipped about the exact nature of their work except that they are brand new targets that, to the best of their knowledge, are not in any disclosed clinical pipelines anywhere.
By examining the tumor microenvironment, he added, Gajewski had been able to identify new biological phenomena mediating the action between the tumor and the T cell — potentially unlocking a second level of T cell inhibition by cancer.
Bayer jumped right on board, VP of venture investments Jak Knowles said.
Having only first met with Steinberg in April, “this is actually, I think, the deal that we’ve closed the fastest since Leaps’ existence,” he told me.
While Pyxis is starting out on the tried and true path of antibody development, he believes it can become an even bigger play in the I/O field by finding the next target for a T cell or NK cell-based therapy.
But it’s still early days, and both the company and the syndicate are clearly taking it step by step. Pyxis now has more board members and scientific advisors than staffers, but Steinberg plans to balance that out by ramping up to 15 to 20.
The SAB comprises:
- Michael Atkins, Deputy Director of the Georgetown-Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Scholl Professor and Vice-Chair of the Department of Oncology at Georgetown University School of Medicine.
- Lisa Butterfield, VP of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy and Adjunct Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of California, San Francisco.
- Alan Korman, Senior Vice President of Human Immunology at Vir Biotechnology and Former Vice President of Immuno-Oncology Discovery at Bristol-Myers Squibb.
- Jason Luke, Associate Professor of Medicine and Director of the Cancer Immunotherapeutics Center at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
Meanwhile, Knowles and his Bayer colleague Lucio Iannone will serve on the board, chaired by Flavin, to advise on potential collaborations and combos.
“Part of the reason we were excited to work with both Bayer and Ipsen on this is because it’s sort of reinforcement of the interest and excitement about these kinds of approaches from within the pharma industry,” Steinberg said.