Taking notes from MD Anderson and Rice University, Avenge Bio uncloaks with $45M and a slate of immunotherapies
Michael Heffernan was already the head of a biotech company focused on chronic pain, called Collegium Pharmaceutical, which he successfully brought public in 2015. But when his wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, he knew that was his next mission.
Heffernan’s wife is doing well — but unfortunately, that isn’t the case for most patients, he said. In 2018, he stepped down from Collegium to look for a better option for women with recurrent refractory ovarian cancer. That’s when he met Rice University’s Omid Veiseh, who was working on an immunotherapy platform with a physician over at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
On Wednesday, Heffernan, Veiseh and their colleague Paul Wotton (who’s also CEO of Obsidian Therapeutics) unveiled a new company around the technology called Avenge Bio, equipped with $45 million in Series A cash and a lead candidate ready for the clinic.
“The reason I got interested in this is there were some data in the literature that was explained to me by the folks at MD Anderson and Omid from back in the 90s, out of the University of Pittsburgh,” said Heffernan, who has taken the helm at Avenge.
A few decades ago, professor Robert Edwards used recombinant Proleukin IL-2, and infused it into the peritoneal cavities of women with refractory recurrent ovarian cancer using an indwelling catheter over 16 weeks.
“It was a very cumbersome process, not a very user-friendly process, but he got some really dramatic results,” Heffernan said. “It never became standard of care because of how difficult it is to do that type of a procedure.”
Avenge Bio’s lead candidate, AVB-001, takes a slightly different approach. The platform, dubbed LOCOcyte, begins with an allogeneic human cell line re-engineered to produce immunomodulators. AVB-001, for instance, produces IL-2.
“We actually are able to, through a human cell line, create human native IL-2,” Heffernan said. “We encapsulate these cells, and then we implant them in proximity to the tumor.”
In the case of ovarian cancer patients, that’s in the peritoneal cavity. While the implanted cells are protected by the encapsulation, they become factories, producing high levels of IL-2 for 15 to 30 days in the peritoneal cavity.
“The IL-2 is not in the systemic circulation where a lot of the toxicity occurs,” he added, noting that you get a corresponding systemic immune response, while avoiding the toxicities associated with systemic exposure.
AVB-001 should be in the clinic in mid-2022, according to Heffernan. They’re also exploring a pipeline of candidates behind IL-2 (including an IL-12 and an IL-15), all based on the technology exclusively licensed from Rice. In the future, they may expand AVB-001 to target lung cancers, including mesothelioma. AVB-002, the IL-12, will address other peritoneal cancers, including pancreatic cancer.
One of the Holy Grails in immuno-oncology over the last few years has been finding an IL-2 drug that can be used safely and effectively to combat cancer, sans the toxicity that largely sidelined the original IL-2 Proleukin. Anaveon raked in $119 million just last month to see its own candidate into a series of Phase II trials — and it’s not the only IL-2-focused company to swing a megaround in the last year or so.
Ovarian cancer often goes undetected until it has spread within the pelvis and belly, at which time it’s more difficult to treat. Women who are diagnosed earlier have much higher five-year survival rates, but only about 15% of patients are diagnosed early, according to the Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance.
The Series A round — co-led by Perceptive Xontogeny and CAM Capital, with participation from seed investor Longitude Capital and new investors Rock Springs Capital and Pappas Capital — should fund the entire Phase I study for AVB-001, and allow the roughy eight- to 10-person team in Natick, MA to grow the pipeline.
As for the name Avenge Bio? It reflects the “personal nature of the mission,” Heffernan said: “To treat hard-to-treat solid tumors.”