Merck KGaA spinout gets first funding to bring dual-acting cancer molecules into the clinic
Two and a half years after launch, Merck KGaA spinout iOnctura is getting its first major round of funding.
The oncology startup raised €15 million ($16.6 million) to put its lead drug into the clinic and get its second drug past IND-enabling tests. INKEF Capital and VI Partners co-led the round and were joined by the biotech’s longtime backer M Ventures, an arm of Merck KGaA, and Schroder Adveq.
iOnctura’s strategy is fairly intriguing, at least on a conceptual level. It’s picking small molecules that have the potential for dual action. For instance, a drug with one effect on the immune system and one effect on the tumor itself. Or a drug might have an effect on cancer and fibrosis.
“Cancer and fibrosis are known as the wounds that never heal,” Pickering said. “A lot of the mechanisms for fibrosis are shared with cancer.”
The lead asset is a PI3Kδ-inhibitor for solid tumors. iOnctura is not the first to explore these kind of inhibitors for immuno-oncology. TG Therapeutics and Incyte both have programs underway, although those are for hematology.
The biotech hopes to show the molecule can both turn up an immune system attack (by turning down immunosuppression), and also directly kill some tumor cells, which are dependent on PI3Kδ. That could make them good candidates for a solid tumor drug.
Their other main asset is an autotaxin inhibitor. It’s still preclinical, but it’s designed to work along complementary mechanisms between cancer and fibrosis. It’s also hypothesized to have an effect on the immune system.
The PI3Kδ-inhibitor, known as IOA-237, was originally a Merck KGaA preclinical lupus candidate. The autotaxin inhibitor, known as IOA-289, was licensed from Cancer Research UK.