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.”

Qual­i­ty Con­trol in Cell and Gene Ther­a­py – What’s Re­al­ly at Stake?

In early 2021, Bluebird Bio was forced to suspend clinical trials of its gene therapy for sickle cell disease after two patients in the trial developed cancer. As company scientists rushed to assess whether there was any causal link between the therapy and the cancer cases, Bluebird’s stock value plummeted – as did those of multiple other biopharma companies developing similar therapies.

While investigations concluded that the gene therapy was unlikely to have caused cancer, investors and the public may be more skittish regarding the safety of gene and cell therapies after this episode. This recent example highlights how delicate the fields of cell and gene therapy remain today, even as they show great promise.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA/Sipa via AP Images)

Sen­a­tors to NIH: Do more to pro­tect US bio­med­ical re­search from for­eign in­flu­ence

Although Thursday’s Senate health committee hearing was focused on how foreign countries and adversaries might be trying to steal or negatively influence biomedical research in the US, the only country mentioned by the senators and expert witnesses was China.

Committee chair Patty Murray (D-WA) made clear in her opening remarks that the US cannot “let the few instances of bad actors” overshadow the hard work of the many immigrant researchers in the US, many of which have won Nobel prizes for their work. But she also said, “There is more the NIH can be doing here.”

Brad Bolzon (Versant)

Ver­sant pulls the wraps off of near­ly $1B in 3 new funds out to build the next fleet of biotech star­tups. And this new gen­er­a­tion is built for speed

Brad Bolzon has an apology to offer by way of introducing a set of 3 new funds that together pack a $950 million wallop in new biotech creation and growth.

“I want to apologize,” says the Versant chairman and managing partner, laughing a little in the intro, “that we don’t have anything fancy or flashy to tell you about our new fund. Same team, around the same amount of capital, same investment strategy. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

But then there’s the flip side, where everything has changed. Or at least speeded into a relative blur. Here’s Bolzon:

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JP Gabriel, Ocugen

JP Gabriel watched from the bleach­ers as the pan­dem­ic raged. Now head of sup­ply chain at Ocu­gen, he's ready to bat

The world was in the middle of the most pressing public health risk his generation had ever seen, and JP Gabriel felt like he was sitting on the sidelines. As a VP of biologics and mRNA manufacturing at Ultragenyx, Gabriel watched from the sidelines as players like Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna used mRNA tech to chase their own Covid-19 vaccines.

This month, Gabriel got the chance to get his hands dirty against the pandemic — but it won’t be with mRNA.

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Jenny Rooke (Genoa Ventures)

Ear­ly Zymer­gen in­vestor Jen­ny Rooke re­flects on 'chimeras' in biotech, what it takes to spot a $500M gem

When Jenny Rooke first heard of Zymergen back in 2014, she knew she was looking at something different and exciting. The Emeryville, CA biotech held the promise of blending biology and technology to solve a huge unmet need for cost-effective chemicals — of all things — and a stellar founding team to boot.

But back then, West Coast venture capitalists didn’t see in Zymergen the one thing they were looking for in a winning biotech: therapeutic potential. Rooke, however, saw an opportunity and made her bets. Seven years later, that bet is paying off in a big way.

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Saurabh Saha at Endpoints News' #BIO19

On the heels of $250M launch, Centes­sa barges ahead with an IPO to fu­el its 10-in-1 Medicxi pipeline

Francesco De Rubertis made no secret of IPO plans for Centessa, his 10-in-1 legacy play. Barely two months later, the S-1 is in.

The hot-off-the-press filing depicts the same grand vision that the longtime VC touted when he did the rounds in February: Take the asset-centric mindset that he’s been preaching at Medicxi over the years, and roll up a bunch of biotech upstarts, with unrelated risk profiles, into 1 pharma company that can carry on the development at scale.

Law pro­fes­sors call for FDA to dis­close all safe­ty and ef­fi­ca­cy da­ta for drugs

Back in early 2018 when Scott Gottlieb led the FDA, there was a moment when the agency seemed poised to release redacted complete response letters and other previously undisclosed data. But that initiative never gained steam.

Now, a growing chorus of researchers are finding that a dearth of public data on clinical trials and pharmaceuticals means industry and the FDA cannot be held accountable, two law professors from Yale and New York University write in an article published Wednesday in the California Law Review.

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Novavax CEO Stanley Erck at the White House in 2020 (Andrew Harnik, AP Images)

As fears mount over J&J and As­traZeneca, No­vavax en­ters a shaky spot­light

As concerns rise around the J&J and AstraZeneca vaccines, global attention is increasingly turning to the little, 33-year-old, productless, bankruptcy-flirting biotech that could: Novavax.

In the now 16-month race to develop and deploy Covid-19 vaccines, Novavax has at times seemed like the pandemic’s most unsuspecting frontrunner and at times like an overhyped also-ran. Although they started the pandemic with only enough cash to last 6 months, they leveraged old connections and believers into $2 billion and emerged last summer with data experts said surpassed Pfizer and Moderna. They unveiled plans to quickly scale to 2 billion doses. Then they couldn’t even make enough material to run their US trial and watched four other companies beat them to the finish line.

FDA of­fers scathing re­view of Emer­gent plan­t's san­i­tary con­di­tions, em­ploy­ee train­ing af­ter halt­ing pro­duc­tion

The FDA wrapped up its inspection of Emergent’s troubled vaccine manufacturing plant in Baltimore on Tuesday, after halting production there on Monday. By Wednesday morning, the agency already released a series of scathing observations on the cross contamination, sanitary issues and lack of staff training that caused the contract manufacturer to dispose of millions of AstraZeneca and J&J vaccine doses.