Versant funds TCR therapy biotech T-knife's $78M+ Series A to boost humanized T cell mice platform
Just a day after announcing the formation of a startup in Switzerland that will develop alternative TCR cell therapies, Versant is keeping its foot on the gas.
The multibillion dollar life sciences VC announced Thursday morning it is leading the Series A funding of T-knife, a German biotech that plans to use its proprietary humanized T cell receptor (HuTCR) mouse platform to treat solid tumors. T-knife raised about $78.4 million in the round and hopes to not only develop its own pipeline but also license out its mice for use by other companies.
“This platform that we have, I would say, is so broadly applicable that we know it has value not only to us but very well give value to other companies as well,” CEO Elisa Kieback told Endpoints News. “So our business strategy is, of course, primarily to develop our own pipeline of products, but at the same time [apply] this platform with pharmas and biotechs to generate receptors for their platforms.”
RA Capital Management co-led the round, and existing investors Andera Partners and Boehringer Ingelheim Venture Fund also participated.
Privatized research is a bit of a new area for Kieback, as T-knife’s platform was spun out of an academic setting at the Max-Delbruck Center with the support of Charité University Hospital in Berlin where Kieback worked with professor Thomas Blankenstein. Blankenstein, who is also a scientific co-founder of T-knife, pioneered the foundation for T-knife’s mice beginning in the early 2000s, and he and Kieback have since conducted academic trials prior to founding the company.
As the costs to run those experiments grew, the duo recognized the need to take the research private. One of the perks of being private, Kieback said, is that undertaking the necessary trials proceeds at a much faster pace than in academia.
“We basically realized what the platform could do, but we also saw how expensive cell therapy is to manufacture these products and bring them to the clinic,” Kieback said. “That was around the time we decided we needed to take this private, it couldn’t be limited as an academic research tool because it really had potential to bring these receptors and therapies to patients, and for that we needed private money.”
While Matterhorn, which Versant unveiled Wednesday, deals also with TCR therapies, it does so in a different manner than T-knife in that the former attempts to understand a class of T cells that could specifically target MR1. T-knife’s mice, meanwhile, express only human TCRs that are restricted to human leukocyte antigen, or HLA.
T-knife’s lead product targets MAGE-A1, which belongs to the group of cancer/testis antigens, in patients with multiple myeloma. Normally expressed as testis in healthy tissue, this protein can sometimes be erroneously activated in tumor cells.
“It’s an ideal target because it’s not present in healthy tissue apart from testis, and testis cannot be attacked by T cells,” Kieback said. “And the other really great thing about it is there are many other tumor indications which are having MAGE-A1 expression, so we can apply this therapy in so many different ways.”
The funding will give T-knife three years of runway, Kieback said, and allow the biotech to finish Phase I trials for that lead candidate. In addition, the company can also bring up to three further pipeline programs into Phase I with the cash.
Long-term, the goal is an IPO, but Kieback isn’t thinking that far ahead just yet.
“The current plan is of course to set up as a trans-Atlantic company, so maybe that’s how we’ll be in the beginning,” Kieback said. “That’s also one of the reasons why we really believe we need US investments at this stage because we need to set up offices in the US and recruit management, so this is our next step.”