Oncology, Venture

Yervoy inventor’s oncology startup Pionyr gets $62M for tumor-fighting tech

An oncology company co-founded by one of the inventors of Yervoy has closed a $62 million round to push its anti-tumor tech towards the clinic.

Steve James

The startup, called Pionyr Immunotherapeutics, is developing antibody therapeutics that boost the body’s immune response at the site of the tumor. New Enterprise Associates led the round, along with new investors Sofinnova and Vida Ventures. Existing backers including OrbiMed joined the round.

Pionyr’s tech, which the company calls “Myeloid Tuning,” attempts to rebalance the tumor microenvironment to favor immune-activating myeloid cells. Essentially, the antibody will target and destroy the myeloid cells that suppress the body’s natural tumor-fighting immune response, leaving the immune-activating myeloid cells alive and strong. Pionyr’s CEO Steve James tells me the company plans to test this approach in combination trials with checkpoint inhibitors and as a standalone treatment. In animals, the drug has proven to boost the performance of checkpoint inhibitors.

Max Krummel

The company should have a pretty good idea of how they might improve the performance of a checkpoint inhibitor. After all, Pionyr was co-founded by Max Krummel, the UC San Francisco professor who co-invented the first checkpoint ­– Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Yervoy.

James said the company began looking for next-level treatment options back in 2015, when the company was founded. Back then, focusing on myeloid cells was pioneering. Today, however, “myeloid” has become a bit of a buzzword in oncology, with lots of companies queuing up the area for R&D.

“You’re finding a number of Big Pharmas have gravitated to the idea,” James said. “They’ve realized that you can’t have 50 checkpoint inhibitors on the market. There has to be a new approach that could work as an enhancement to checkpoint inhibitors or open up areas they’re not getting good responses in.”

In fact, Bristol-Myers itself has a program that involves eliminating myeloid cells. The pharma giant paid Five Prime $350 million upfront two years ago to partner on the antibody program called colony stimulating factor 1 receptor (CSF1R), which recently shared disappointing data from a combo trial with Opdivo.

James said the BMS program doesn’t target immuno-suppressive myeloid cells like Pionyr’s technology does, but rather targets multiple myeloids.

“It will be interesting to see how their broader mechanism of action will play out in clinical trials,” James said.

James wouldn’t disclose which cancers Pionyr will be taking on, but did say the company was in several preclinical trials and expects INDs in 2019.


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