Startups

Pfizer bankrolls an oncolytics biotech upstart with an eye on a future buyout

Pfizer is bankrolling a new oncolytic virus startup, taking a 50% stake in the cancer drug outfit while holding an option to buy it if the founders appear to be on the right R&D track.

The upstart is Ignite Immunotherapy, based in Alameda, CA, which is being launched by a group of experienced oncolytics hands. Berkeley adjunct professor David Kirn, the CEO of 4D Molecular Therapeutics, is the co-founder, along with Berkeley’s Dave Schaffer.

Doug Hanahan, director of the Swiss Institute for Cancer Research, is also counted as a co-founder, while Pfizer research exec James Merson joins the board.

Pfizer is also paying for the R&D work at the company over the next three years, as Ignite looks to jump into a wave of up and coming biotechs where are hurrying along next-gen oncolytic vaccines aiming at surpassing the pioneering Imlygic (T-Vec), marketed by Amgen. A bunch of these startups are pairing up with checkpoint inhibitors, a fact that wasn’t lost on Pfizer as it seeks the 4th OK of a checkpoint drug.

It’s a hot and happening field. Boehringer just inked a $230 million deal to partner with ViraTherapeutics. And the startup will join rivals like PsiOxus. Philip Astley-Sparke, who helmed BioVex before Amgen bought it up for T-Vec, co-founded Replimune, another next-gen oncolytic virus player. Mitchell Finer, the former CSO at bluebird bio, took the helm at the upstart Oncorus, which just raised a $57 million venture round and is using a herpes simplex virus for their work on glioblastoma. And Duke University’s Dr. Matthias Gromeier has genetically engineered his virus to keep it focused on cancer, and away from healthy tissues.


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