Startups, Venture

Tuning in: Intensity’s immune-based chemo delivery tech attracts backing of British billionaire Jim Mellon

In cancer treatment, chemotherapy and immunotherapy are often seen as completely separate, if complementary, categories of treatments. A tiny biotech out of Westport, CT now wants to shake up that paradigm — and has just raised $6.5 million to do so with backing from British billionaire Jim Mellon, crowdfunding investor V Capital, Batterson Venture Capital and several family offices.

Lew Bender

What Intensity Therapeutics’ drug delivery tech allows them to do, CEO Lew Bender tells me, is to inject potent drugs directly into the tumor, where they diffuse and disperse, essentially attenuating the cancer without destroying the cell surface. That makes the cancer cells “much more recognizable and therefore more antigenic for recognition by the immune system,” unleashing an attack not just on the injected tumor but also on non-injected ones, he says.

It’s a “physics approach” that can theoretically target all sorts of solid tumors, according to Bender, a chemical engineer by training who spent the better part of the last two decades at a drug delivery company. But it was while he was at the helm of Interleukin Genetics that he came up with the idea to start his own biotech venture in 2012.

“If you go to genomics conferences, it’s all about trying to get a genomic profile so you can match a drug, so that you can get a better receptor uptake for that drug into the tumors,” he says, “and I thought, well, if getting drugs into tumors or getting drugs into cancer cells is really the problem, I know how to do that.”

Intensity is starting out with INT230-6, a formulation combining its “cell penetration enhancer molecule” with the chemo drugs cisplatin and vinblastine.

While Bender initially thought his tech could only be used in combination with checkpoint inhibitors, mice experiments suggested that the drug alone provided enough stimulation to trigger an immune response. The monotherapy is now in Phase I/II; if all goes well with early readouts on some of the more refractory tumors like pancreatic, liver and breast cancer, Intensity expects to launch a Phase II within a year.

The biotech is still keen to get its hands on a PD-1 — something that Bender anticipates in the next six to nine months.

“PD-1 is basically like a volume dial on a radio,” he says. “Turning up the dial, which is what I/O does, doesn’t solve the problem of tuning in. We are the tuner of the radio to allow the immune system to recognize the cancer and go after it in a much more efficient way without as much toxicity.”

With a “tiny burn rate” — around $3 million last year — and just three full time employees including himself, Bender says the Series B he’s just raised will fund all that, and then some, all the way through to 2020.

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Research Scientist - Immunology
Recursion Pharmaceuticals Salt Lake City, UT
Director of Operations
Atlas Venture Cambridge, MA

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