Startups, Venture

The next checkpoints? Immuno-oncology upstart looks to find new ways to unleash T cells

With much of the research community in oncology focused on T cell regulators like LAG-3 to follow up on CTLA4 and PD-L1 in the hunt for new targets to quell cancer, a pair of investigators in Germany asked themselves a simple question.

If tumor cells express PD-L1 to inhibit T cells, what else can be found on the surface of these cells that block T cells?

ceo-sebastian-meier-ewert

CEO Sebastian Meier-Ewert

The question spurred them to begin an ambitious tumor screening program for new targets. And their work has now inspired a startup, iOmx Therapeutics, which has put together a $44 million A round to back the first few years of preclinical work and at least one proof-of-concept study for a lead program.

MPM Capital and Sofinnova Partners co-led the A round, joined by Wellington Partners and Merck Ventures.

At this stage, i/o has clearly emerged as the hottest field in drug research, inspiring an explosion of research projects and a long chain of deals that play out on a day-to-day basis. So how do you position a startup as a potential groundbreaker on next-gen checkpoint programs amid all the action?

“The key is the real innovation on the science side and the innovativeness of the targets,” says CEO Sebastian Meier-Ewert. In a number of cases, there’s nothing in the literature to suggest that some of their targets being tested in tissue samples and mice are on the radar.

“Some of these targets,” he adds, “we know that no one is working on them, full stop.”

He should know. Meier-Ewert gave up his job as a managing partner at MPM Capital to take the lead as a full time CEO. And he chose iOmx after getting a look at a lot of potential projects. Now the small three-member staff in the Martinsried biotech hub in Munich will be beefed up to 10 by the end of the year, on its way to 15-20 in the next few years.

Just don’t ask yet what his first new targets are. This is a hotly competitive field, and iOmx wants to maintain silence on its first programs as the CEO sorts through the first round of partnering interest.

Co-founder Philipp Beckhove did much of the foundation research while working at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, and is now at the RCI Regensburg Center for Interventional Immunology. The company’s screening platform was developed by co-founder Nisit Khandelwal, SVP of Research.


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