Searching for new TCR targets, immunotherapy startup emerges with Stanford tech, $40M round
In the last decade, immunotherapy, which involves the usage of a patient’s own immune cells to fight cancers, has gained great momentum. In one variation, the treatment involves removing a patient’s T cells, a type of white blood cell, and enabling them to recognize proteins that are only present in cancer cells. Upon finding its nemesis the T cells attack the cancer cells. But the major challenge researchers face is discovering more and more of these proteins that are displayed specifically on cancer cells, said Stefan Scherer, CEO of 3T Biosciences, a San Francisco-based biotech.
“To identify novel targets is not trivial,” he added.
His company has developed an AI-based platform to identify novel targets and announced Thursday morning it has raised $40 million in Series A funding. The round was led by Westlake Village BioPartners with participation from Lightspeed Venture Partners.
In addition to cell therapies, the company believes its targets can lead to new bispecifics and peptide vaccines. To that end, it’s also developing a technique to find new peptides — or binders — that hook to the cancer proteins at one end and T cells on the other hand.
“The problem is peptides which are currently used in immunotherapy is that sometimes [they] closely represent what is present in human peptides and you see unspecific binding to noncancer cells, which leads to side effects,” said Scherer.
When these peptides bring the T cell and cancer proteins in proximity, the T cells attack the cancer cells. 3T’s AI platform identifies peptides that are different from human peptides but closely bind only to the cancer cells.
“That way the risk that the peptide binds to a receptor randomly in the gut, in the eye, in the brain is not there,” he added.
In the last five years, the team identified more than a dozen target proteins on cancer cells from colon cancer to breast cancers. The new funding will go toward bringing a couple of them to the clinical stage.
“We will apply for investigational new drug next year and hope to bring our first target into the clinic in 2023 or early 2024,” said Scherer.
The company was founded in 2017 by Leah Sibener, Marvin Gee and Chris Garcia, the former two of whom finished their PhDs at Garcia’s lab at Stanford. Their company exclusively in-licensed the technology from the university.
3T is not alone in its pursuits. Longwood has backed a number of startups promising to unearth new ways to unlock immuno-oncology, including Pyxis and Immunitas. This month, New York-based Envisagenics announced that it was awarded a $2 million Small Business Innovation Research Direct to Phase II grant from the National Cancer Institute to commercialize its proprietary drug discovery platform, SpliceIOTM, for the discovery of new I/O targets.
3T’s investors however believe that the company is entering a space where multiple players can contribute. “3T Biosciences’ technology enables us to address one of the biggest challenges in cancer treatment – developing next-generation therapies for solid tumors and other immune-mediated diseases with curative potential,” said Sean Harper, managing director at Westlake Village BioPartners.
“In addition, the 3T technology is of great interest to a large number of biopharma companies active in the oncology and autoimmune spaces,” he added.