Startups, Venture

Versant backs new approach to gamma delta T cells, co-leads Lava’s $18.9M round

With immuno-oncology dominating pipelines these days, the field of gamma delta T cells — once a tiny area of study — is gaining some steam. The newest player to the space is Lava Therapeutics, a tiny biotech in the Netherlands that just got $18.9 million co-led by Versant Ventures and Gilde Healthcare to develop its unusual take.

Gamma delta T cells are targets for research for their potential to invade tissue and perhaps be better at infiltrating tumors, which would be a groundbreaker in immuno-oncology. Where CAR-Ts have proved effective in blood cancers, it’s been a challenge getting them into tumors And while checkpoint therapies like Keytruda and Opdivo require an environment with a heavy mutation load to be effective, gamma delta cells – at least in the preclinical work — don’t. Gamma delta cells have the essential properties to get inside tumors to do their work.

Hans van der Vliet

Lots of companies, including bluebird bio’s new acquisition TC Biopharm, are taking the cell therapy approach to getting gamma delta T cells where they need to be. But Lava has different plans. The company’s brand new head of R&D, Paul Parren, tells me Lava is developing bi-specific antibodies that bind to the tumor cell on one side and the gamma delta cells on the other.

“The gamma delta cells are known to infiltrate tumors already, but they may not be fully activated once they’re in,” Parren said. “Tumors have all kind of suppressive mechanisms that can turn down T cell activity. Our bi-specific antibody adds extra activation, killing the tumor.”

To date, the company has demonstrated proof of principle for the gamma delta platform, building on the scientific discoveries of the research team headed by Hans van der Vliet, an oncologist at VU University Medical Center and Cancer Center Amsterdam who also serves as Lava’s CSO.

Bi-specific antibodies have been hampered in the past by manufacturing issues, but Parren said Lava’s version can actually be both potent and cost-effective to produce. Although the company isn’t going into specifics on indications, Parren said they plan to tackle both blood cancers and solid tumors. The new funds should carry the company through discovery work, hopefully covering the expenses until Lava selects the programs to advance through the clinic.

Parren just joined the company this week as executive vice president and head of R&D, with the announcement of his recruitment tied to Lava’s new financing. He’s probably best known for his time at Genmab, where he’s spent 16 years as head of preclinical development and research. When asked what was behind his move to a small startup, Parren said he was up for the challenge of early-stage research.

“I like to create new things, and be at the forefront of innovation,” Parren said. “On the one hand it’s still very exciting at Genmab, as you get to see things you create move through the clinic. But for me, being in a small company allows you to be more creative and be more challenged. When you run into problems, you have to solve them yourself. I like that.”

Image: Paul Parren. KNECT365 LIFE SCIENCES via YOUTUBE

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