Neoantigens emerged as one of the hot new trends in biotech R&D a little more than a year ago. After a slate of cancer vaccines had struggled and failed in the clinic, the idea that you could fashion a vaccine directly targeting an individual patient’s tumors became fashionable in certain segments of the venture community. And a group of investors has joined hands to fund the next stage of clinical development at Neon Therapeutics with a hefty $70 million B round.
The Cambridge, MA-based Neon was launched by Third Rock back in late 2015. And it’s already in a Phase Ib study with its lead program NEO-PV-01. That study launched in November, looking to recruit 90 patients in 3 cohorts covering melanoma, bladder cancer and non-small cell lung cancer. Patients are getting a custom-built vaccine along with Opdivo, one of the top checkpoint inhibitors.
“This is first bespoke (made to suit) vaccine,” says CEO Hugh O’Dowd, a Novartis vet who made the jump to biotech. “When I was looking at a variety of opportunities earlier, I frankly looked down on the vaccine opportunities of the past.” Tumor-associated antigens were the focus, but it took tumor specific antigens, these neoantigens, to get his attention.
“I don’t think anyone could spell neoantigens 5 years ago,” he adds. “And we’re learning every day. One of the most recent patients with non-small cell lung cancer, had 2,400 unique mutations in their tumor. If you take a number of lung cancer patients, there’s no similarity in mutations from patient to patient. We call them non-small cell lung cancer, but mutations are driving their disease.”
And you’re going to need a bespoke, personalized, on time cancer vaccine to stop it. That means working on a production and delivery model that can tailor each patient’s vaccine in a timely and efficient manner.
Says O’Dowd: “We are thinking cost of goods and one that is scalable for a model that can work around the world.”
Neon is also building out its pipeline. Building on a foundation of research from the Broad Institute and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the biotech is working on NEO-PTC-01, a preclinical personalized adoptive T cell program, as well as a “Shared Neoantigen Program.”
The first round of data from their work should be available later in the year.
Neon is obviously not alone. UK investors launched Achilles Therapeutics last fall, a year after Gritstone landed $102 million for its work. Moderna and Merck — keenly focused on expanding its Keytruda franchise — are partnered on a personalized cancer vaccine. Sean Parker’s new institute has been creating a neoantigen collaborative. And biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong has shown interest as well.
Partner Fund Management stepped in to lead the latest round. They were joined by Third Rock Ventures and Access Industries, with additional new investors that included Fidelity Management & Research Company, Wellington Management Company, Inbio Ventures and Nextech Invest.
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