Novartis-partnered Orionis secures $55M to push cytokine program into clinic
In seven years, a small company has built two programs in immuno-oncology and molecular glues and got itself into a partnership with one of the world’s biggest pharma companies. Now the transatlantic biotech has refilled its coffers.
Orionis Biosciences announced Wednesday morning that it finished a Series C round and secured $55 million. That infusion gives Orionis flexibility to expand its R&D operations, increase its pipeline and bring assets into human trials. The biotech plans to introduce its lead candidate, a conditionally active cytokine therapy, into the clinic sometime next year.
Founder and CEO Nikolai Kley tells Endpoints News that the Ghent, Belgium, and Waltham, MA biotech was founded back in 2015, and has developed two platforms — one for I/O-focused cytokines and one for molecular glues and other degraders.
On top of the financing, Orionis also announced that it hired Robert Petit as its head of early clinical development in recent months. A Bristol Myers Squibb vet and part of the pioneering team that helped establish the first checkpoint inhibitor therapy ipilimumab (FDA-approved in 2011 and marketed as Yervoy), Petit joined the biotech in March after recent stints as CSO at Carisma Therapeutics, Advaxis and Saros Therapeutics.
Kley said that after the biotech was founded, it stayed in semi-stealth for a few years, building out its technology platforms until it announced a partnership with Novartis in 2020:
And the mission there was to create platforms that are first of all, unique and can address sort of some of the big challenges in drug discovery, reaching intractable targets, and so forth — create this in a very modular fashion so that we can scale it.
The startup got connected with Novartis through Kley’s previous background as co-founder of Forma Therapeutics (just acquired last month by Novo Nordisk for $1.1 billion). He knew people at Novartis and knew that it had an interest in molecular glues. The two signed a drug discovery partnership back in 2020.
As for what distinguishes Orionis from other biotechs in the space, Kley touted that its platforms allow for optionality and for risk-taking, going much broader in terms of drug discovery. Its more advanced platform, called A-Kine, has been working on what Kley called “finely tuned cytokine effector molecules” that could harness the immune system against cancer — including even cold tumors, another name for cancer tumors that render checkpoint inhibitors ineffective.
Orionis’ other platform, called Allo-Glue, is less advanced than A-Kine — but that focuses on cellular interactions, studying them at scale and then finding multiple approaches to use: either E3 ligases to bind to a protein and then degrade, or involving a “target-centric” approach. Here’s how Kley explained it:
If you have a target of therapeutic interest, and you want to identify or discover a glue that promotes its degradation, now you match it up with an E3 ligase and you do a large-scale diversity screening approach to identify glues that enhance or promote these interactions.
Next steps for the biotech include introducing at least one lead candidate in cancer, with a focus on solid tumors, into the clinic, as well as growing the pipeline and hiring more people. The biotech currently has 45 employees and plans to continue to grow, but Kley declined to share specifics on how long the financing would last the company.
Existing and new investors participated in the round, including Cormorant Asset Management, Novartis and a series of undisclosed “high-caliber investment funds,” Orionis said.