Luis Voloch and Noam Solomon (Immunai)

Stan­ford, Park­er In­sti­tute sci­en­tists team up with two young en­gi­neers in $20M AI play with an im­munol­o­gy fo­cus

Al­most a year ago, a group of sci­en­tists at Stan­ford and the Park­er In­sti­tute for Can­cer Im­munother­a­py pub­lished a pa­per in Na­ture Med­i­cine that chal­lenged a com­mon as­sump­tion about where tu­mor fight­ing cells come from: While re­searchers had thought that the role of check­point block­ade was to rein­vig­o­rate T cells al­ready present in the tu­mor, they sug­gest­ed that the vast ma­jor­i­ty ac­tu­al­ly didn’t come from the tu­mor sites at all.

An­su Sat­pa­thy

The find­ing was made pos­si­ble by sin­gle-cell RNA se­quenc­ing tech­nol­o­gy, which cap­tured tens of thou­sands of cells over time and re­vealed that the army of ac­tive T cells could be found in the blood­stream.

Two re­searchers on the team — Stan­ford pathol­o­gy pro­fes­sor An­su Sat­pa­thy and PI­CI se­nior da­ta sci­en­tist Dan­ny Wells — had been ad­vis­ing an AI start­up with a can­cer fo­cus. But with­in a few months, they jumped on board Im­mu­nai as found­ing sci­en­tists and steered it to­ward a slight­ly dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion, one tied close­ly with the T cell work.

By build­ing an end-to-end plat­form from sam­ple pro­cess­ing to data­base as­sem­bly to da­ta min­ing for bi­o­log­i­cal in­sights, Im­mu­nai’s ul­ti­mate goal is to map out the en­tire im­mune sys­tem, co-founder and CEO Noam Solomon told End­points News.

The com­pa­ny is now emerg­ing from stealth with $20 mil­lion in a seed round led by Vi­o­la Group and TLV Part­ners.

Solomon was a post­doc at MIT when his friend and even­tu­al busi­ness part­ner, Luis Voloch, got him ex­cit­ed about tran­si­tion­ing from tech to biotech — or tech­bio as they would call it. Voloch, who cut his teeth in ma­chine learn­ing at Palan­tir, is now the chief tech­nol­o­gy of­fi­cer of Im­mu­nai.

Dan­ny Wells

They were par­tic­u­lar­ly fas­ci­nat­ed with the com­pu­ta­tion­al con­cept of trans­fer learn­ing, which al­lows one to ap­ply knowl­edge in one area (such as au­toim­mune dis­eases) to an­oth­er (such as can­cer im­munother­a­py).

“That’s why it’s im­por­tant for us to un­der­stand the im­mune sys­tem from the top down,” Voloch said. “It’s on­ly when you look at all these things at once that you can re­al­ly un­der­stand the in­ter­play be­tween these dif­fer­ent cell types and the dif­fer­ent func­tions that these cell types have in dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios.”

For phar­ma part­ners with check­point drugs and cell ther­a­pies in de­vel­op­ment, Im­mu­nai promis­es to an­swer ques­tions about how com­bos might act to­geth­er on dif­fer­ent cells — with an eye for new bio­mark­ers and tar­gets. When it comes to CAR-T and oth­er TCR ther­a­pies, Voloch said, the team can al­so pro­file the drug be­fore in­fu­sion, track­ing per­for­mance by sub­pop­u­la­tion.

“Our first en­deav­or is to un­der­stand mech­a­nisms of the im­mune sys­tem,” Solomon con­clud­ed.

Un­like some of the oth­er AI shops that have popped up in bio­phar­ma, Im­mu­nai is cer­tain it will not step in­to its own drug dis­cov­ery and de­vel­op­ment. Rather, its 30-strong work­force in Tel Aviv, New York and San Fran­cis­co will de­vote all their at­ten­tion to play­ing as­sist in the bio­phar­ma world. Be­yond the ini­tial ap­pli­ca­tions in can­cer, it al­so sees a fu­ture in every­thing from in­fec­tious dis­ease to Alzheimer’s.

“To each dis­ease there is an im­mune com­po­nent,” Solomon added. “Build­ing this wide data­base, this pan-im­mune data­base, we will be able to de­code this com­po­nent.”

Biotech Half­time Re­port: Af­ter a bumpy year, is biotech ready to re­bound?

The biotech sector has come down firmly from the highs of February as negative sentiment takes hold. The sector had a major boost of optimism from the success of the COVID-19 vaccines, making investors keenly aware of the potential of biopharma R&D engines. But from early this year, clinical trial, regulatory and access setbacks have reminded investors of the sector’s inherent risks.

RBC Capital Markets recently surveyed investors to take the temperature of the market, a mix of specialists/generalists and long-only/ long-short investment strategies. Heading into the second half of the year, investors mostly see the sector as undervalued (49%), a large change from the first half of the year when only 20% rated it as undervalued. Around 41% of investors now believe that biotech will underperform the S&P500 in the second half of 2021. Despite that view, 54% plan to maintain their position in the market and 41% still plan to increase their holdings.

Covid-19 vac­cine boost­ers earn big thumbs up, but Mod­er­na draws ire over world sup­ply; What's next for Mer­ck’s Covid pill?; The C-suite view on biotech; and more

Welcome back to Endpoints Weekly, your review of the week’s top biopharma headlines. Want this in your inbox every Saturday morning? Current Endpoints readers can visit their reader profile to add Endpoints Weekly. New to Endpoints? Sign up here.

You may remember that at the beginning of this year, Endpoints News set a goal to go broader and deeper. We are still working towards that, and are excited to share that Beth Snyder Bulik will be joining us on Monday to cover all things pharma marketing. You can sign up for her weekly Endpoints MarketingRx newsletter in your reader profile.

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No­var­tis de­vel­op­ment chief John Tsai: 'We go deep in the new plat­form­s'

During our recent European Biopharma Summit, I talked with Novartis development chief John Tsai about his experiences over the 3-plus years he’s been at the pharma giant. You can read the transcript below or listen to the exchange in the link above.

John Carroll: I followed your career for quite some time. You’ve had more than 20 years in big pharma R&D and you’ve obviously seen quite a lot. I really was curious about what it was like for you three and a half years ago when you took over as R&D chief at Novartis. Obviously a big move, a lot of changes. You went to work for the former R&D chief of Novartis, Vas Narasimhan, who had his own track record there. So what was the biggest adjustment when you went into this position?

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Roche's Tecen­triq cross­es the fin­ish line first in ad­ju­vant lung can­cer, po­ten­tial­ly kick­ing off gold rush

While falling behind the biggest PD-(L)1 drugs in terms of sales, Roche has looked to carve out a space for its Tecentriq with a growing expertise in lung cancer. The drug will now take an early lead in the sought-after adjuvant setting — but competitors are on the way.

The FDA on Friday approved Tecentriq as an adjuvant therapy for patients with Stage II-IIIA non small cell lung cancer with PD-(L)1 scores greater than or equal to 1, making it the first drug of its kind approved in an early setting that covers around 40% of all NSCLC patients.

Amit Etkin, Alto Neuroscience CEO (Alto via Vimeo)

A star Stan­ford pro­fes­sor leaves his lab for a start­up out to re­make psy­chi­a­try

About five years ago, Amit Etkin had a breakthrough.

The Stanford neurologist, a soft-spoken demi-prodigy who became a professor while still a resident, had been obsessed for a decade with how to better define psychiatric disorders. Drugs for depression or bipolar disorder didn’t work for many patients with the conditions, and he suspected the reason was how traditional diagnoses didn’t actually get at the heart of what was going on in a patient’s brain.

Susan Galbraith, Executive VP, Oncology R&D, AstraZeneca

As­traZeneca on­col­o­gy R&D chief Su­san Gal­braith: 'Y­ou're go­ing to need or­thog­o­nal com­bi­na­tion­s'

 

Earlier in the week we broadcast our 4th annual European Biopharma Summit with a great lineup of top execs. One of the one-on-one conversations I set up was with Susan Galbraith, the oncology research chief at AstraZeneca. In a wide-ranging discussion, Galbraith reviewed the cancer drug pipeline and key trends influencing development work at the pharma giant. You can watch the video, above, or stick with the script below. — JC

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Yao-Chang Xu, Abbisko Therapeutics founder and CEO

Qim­ing-backed Ab­bisko makes $200M+ Hong Kong de­but, as a SPAC and Agenus spin­out al­so price on Nas­daq

Three new entities priced their public debuts late Thursday and early Friday, including a SPAC, a traditional Nasdaq IPO and a Chinese biotech joining the Hong Kong Index.

Shanghai-based Abbisko Therapeutics raised the most money of the triumvirate, garnering $226 million in its Hong Kong debut and pricing at HK$12.46, or roughly $1.60 in US dollars. The blank check company followed up with a $150 million raise, while MiNK Therapeutics priced on Nasdaq at $12 per share and a $40 million raise.

Paul Grayson, Tentarix CEO (Versant)

Phar­ma vet­er­ans re­group with $50M and a plan to dis­cov­er new mul­ti-specifics

While a horde of drugmakers develops bispecific antibodies to more directly target tumor cells — there were about 100 programs in or nearing clinical trials back in May — a new company is emerging to go one step further.

On Thursday, Tentarix Biotherapeutics unveiled a $50 million Series A round to support its next-gen multi-specifics platform. While the field has largely focused on bispecifics, which engage two targets, Tentarix believes its multifunctional programs have the potential to be even more specific, since more conditions must be met for potent activity to occur.

Tillman Gerngross, Adagio CEO

Q&A: Till­man Gern­gross ex­plains why his Covid mAb will have an edge over an al­ready crowd­ed field

If anyone knows about monoclonal antibodies, it’s serial entrepreneur, Adimab CEO, and Dartmouth professor of bioengineering Tillman Gerngross.

Even the name of Gerngross’ new antibody startup Adagio Therapeutics is meant to reflect his vision behind the development of his Covid-19 mAb: slowly, he said, explaining that “everyone else, whether it’s Regeneron, Lilly, or AstraZeneca, Vir, they all valued speed over everything.”

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