Torque takes tumor tech out of stealth with $25M backing, new CEO
Torque Therapeutics and its high-profile C-suite is stepping out of stealth to announce a $25 million round, bankrolled by biotech startup crew Flagship Pioneering.
Reporters scooped the news back in August when Torque filed regulatory paperwork signaling fundraising efforts. The paperwork caught the eye of biotech writers due to the star-studded executive staff.
The co-founders include Bart Henderson, the former president of Rhythm Pharmaceuticals (which just snagged $120 million by going public); Ulrik Nielsen, the founder and former CSO of Merrimack; and Thomas Lars Andresen, head of micro- and nanotechnology at Technical University of Denmark.
The company’s top executives appear to be playing a round of musical chairs. Nielsen, who joined Torque as its CEO back in 2015, is leaving that post to serve instead as president. And Henderson, who joined Torque as president earlier this year, is taking the reins as CEO. It’s likely that Henderson is ready to take a more active role now that Rhythm’s IPO is all wrapped up.
Back when news broke of Torque’s stealthy activities, Endpoints News reported the company had raised the first $21 million of a $35 million round. Now, the company said it’s decided to wrap up that round right at $25 million to get to work on its pipeline.
To put it mildly, the team has some lofty ambitions to revolutionize cell therapies as we know it. The game now is to make better cell therapies, capable of mounting a fierce attack on cancer cells with a platform tech that has implications for CAR-T, TCRs, NK cells and antigen specific T cells.
Until now, Torque has been pretty tight-lipped on how their next-gen cell therapy works. But as part of Torque’s coming out party, Nielsen and Henderson gave me a peek at the science driving the company’s pipeline.
Torque’s tumor-fighting tech
Let’s start with the end goal: ramping up the body’s immune system to fight cancer directly at the site of a solid tumor.
“We’ve seen spectacular results in oncology with CAR-T, and now everyone is wondering how to take that success to the next level with solid tumors,” Nielsen said.
Torque’s plan is to stick biotherapeutics to T cells, which are then delivered directly to the tumor site. The company’s lead program, called Deep IL-15, anchors a growth factor to the T cell, which activates a tiny army of T cells to take down the tumor.
Attempting to boost populations of T cells with growth factors isn’t a novel idea, but so far companies have been administering the growth factors systemically. That can be a problem, Nielsen said, as “the immune system is activated where it shouldn’t be activated,” promoting toxicity.
Torque’s real value is in its ability to anchor these biotherapeutics to T cells, Henderson said. The company is calling this technology “Deep-Priming,” and the manufacturing process seems pretty straightforward.
“Whether the cells are autologous or allogeneic, you take out a vial of Deep IL-15, mix it with the cells, and freeze it,” Nielsen said.
Partnering prospects and the pipeline
Torque already has three programs in the pipeline that modulate the immune system, targeting both blood and solid tumors. Henderson said the company could partner that technology with an existing immuno-oncology drug, or pair the tech with its own early-stage checkpoint inhibitor.
“Our programs are meant to be synergistic, but the ultimate vision is that each one will have a dramatic therapeutic benefit,” Henderson said.
The company is currently pursuing partnerships with players in the immuno-oncology space. In the meantime, Torque will use its latest round of capital to advance programs along.
Flagship Pioneering, which has become one of the most prominent blank-slate venture funds in biotech, chipped in the full $25 million for Torque’s Series A. Although Flagship is well known for its startup incubator VentureLabs, Torque was not hatched there, Henderson said.