MPM and Longwood-backed Werewolf Therapeutics grabs $56 million to take tumors by night
Backed with the team from his last company, one of the key developers behind Keytruda has a new warchest in the race to bring immunotherapy into the tumor micro-environment.
Dan Hicklin, who oversaw Merck’s I/O portfolio and helped develop several other cancer drugs, is the founder and president of Werewolf Therapeutics, a company that aims to “shapeshift” its way into tumors and tear them apart from within. With the exception of the COO, its leadership is entirely seeded from Potenza Therapeutics, the antibody company Hicklin sold to Astellas for $165 million upfront last December. They’ll even use the same lab space.
Werewolf is backed with $56 million in Series A funding led by MPM Capital and Longwood and joined by Taiho Ventures, Arkin Bio Ventures, DC Investment Partners and UPMC.
“It was a little bit of a different challenge, at least for me,” Hicklin told Endpoints News. “It’s quite a bit of a difference from checkpoint therapy.”
Beyond the YA novel branding, Werewolf has a seemingly elegant approach to the problems that have vexed researchers trying to turn the immune system on tumor microenvironments. They use what they call their “PREDATOR” platform to send compounds that only trigger an immune response once they enter the tumor microenvironment.
Past company statements have compared this process to a werewolf only transforming in the light of the full moon, but you can probably just think of it as acting like those kids toys that change color in water.
Microenvironments are particularly important in addressing solid tumors, where Werewolf is focusing its efforts. These spaces are often immunosuppressive and have been resistant to the checkpoint inhibitors that have dominated I/O to date. Other biotechs, such as Editas or GammaDelta, have worked on using particular immune cells, such as gamma delta cells or natural killer cells to get inside.
Werewolf is less than forthcoming about what will be attached to the platform or exactly how it’ll work within tumors, saying only they will use pro-inflammatory cytokines and costimulatory receptor agonists.
The problem with these agents to date, Hicklin said, is that they can send the immune system into dangerous overdrive.
The body should have immune homeostasis. Checkpoints on tumor cells put artificial brakes on the system by binding to T cells, and checkpoint inhibitors such as Keytruda prevent the tumor cells from binding and putting on those brakes. Werewolf and other companys’ microenvironment agents such as IL-2 throw the normal immune system into overdrive. But if they increase the immune response outside the tumor too much, they can cause immune cells to damage healthy tissue.
“These are the accelerators rather than the brakes,” Hicklin said, turning towards an increasingly common analogy.
Hicklin said Werewolf will select two lead candidates over the next 6 months and hopefully aim for the clinic. It could be a while, but keep an eye out for a full moon.