Novartis, Bayer, Longwood back genomics startup to speed search for immunotherapy targets
Nearly a century passed between the first proto-immunotherapy attempts in cancer — crude and obscure but nonetheless with some scientific basis — and Jim Allison’s first T cell paper. Thirty-plus years flipped between the discovery of CTLA-4 as an off-switch and the approval of Yervoy. Twenty-two rolled between PD-1’s isolation and Opdiva and Keytruda.
Longwood co-founder Lea Hachigian is betting she can hasten that. It’s a bet on newly established single-cell genomic analysis tech and the ability to crunch endless troves of data at a rate few others can, and investors including Leaps by Bayer and Novartis Venture Fund just put $39 million behind it. They call it Immunitas.
“We can ask questions of the immune system we weren’t able to ask before,” Hachigian told Endpoints News.
The idea is to bridge immuno-oncology and targeted therapies. They’ll analyze individual human immune cells to determine what genes are driving it to, say, attack or not attack a particular cancer, essentially converting broad questions — what genes or proteins are at play? — into computational ones. Longwood first learned of the platform in the winter, Hachigian said, and the work has so far led to one preclinical antibody for cancer.
Single-cell sequencing, while a dramatic leap over the technology Allison had to work with (he actually relied on a UC lab to verify his early antigen paper), has now been around for some time. It was Nature’s 2013 Method of the Year, two years after Cold Spring Harbor Lab researchers used it to create the first map of a cancer genome.
Immunitas claims to stand apart by virtue of being able to analyze that data. Single-cell sequencing can generate massive data sets, including tens of thousands of RNA, and Hachigian said most researchers don’t have the capability to sort through it all. They look for specific things, instead of looking at the results in their entirety.
“What we typically see are really interesting data sets that are hard to glean anything from,” Hachigian said. “No one is working on the targets we are.”
So far, that’s one target, a monoclonal antibody that Immunitas is tight-lipped about. But the company argues that the targets it comes up will be superior because they’re based on analyzing human cells — an increasingly common approach — rather than the mouse models that have become famous for producing cancer compounds that fail over 90% of the time in humans.
Beyond oncology, Immunitas will eventually pivot to focus on auto-immune diseases as well. No word yet on what those might be.
For now, they’ll add to a growing trove of Longwood-backed immunotherapy biotechs, joining the newly financed Werewolf Therapeutics and Thomas Gajewski’s summertime startup Pyxis Therapeutics.