With $50M round, Peninsula biotech bets on next-generation cancer drug combos
Feb 10, 2016
Armed with $50 million from the former Google Ventures, Celgene Corp. and others, a young Redwood City biotech company is aiming to pair its drug with other drugs that rev up the immune system to destroy cancer cells. ARMO BioSciences Inc. said Wednesday that the Series C round from Alphabet Inc.'s (NASDAQ: GOOG) GV venture capital arm (the former Google Ventures), Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG), HBM Healthcare Investments, Industrial Investors Group and Clough Investment Partners will help it move into more-definitive studies by early next year. Those funders joined with existing investors Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers , OrbiMed, DAG Ventures and NanoDimension to push ARMO's total fundraising since 2012 to $100 million. ARMO's lead drug, called AM-0010, has shown promise as a potential standalone therapy, said President and CEO Peter Van Vlasselaer . But its real power, he said, is combining it with other drugs that reset the immune system to attack a wide range of cancers. So-called cancer immunotherapy is a hot area of work among commercial biotech companies. Immunotherapy drugs put the body's own immune system on high alert, helping it spot the proteins that tumors secrete to put the brakes on the immune system. The knock on early cancer immunotherapy drugs is that they tend to hop up the immune system to the point that patients develop autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis. ARMO has three Phase Ib trials in lung and kidney cancers as well as melanoma that combine AM-0010 with a group of checkpoint inhibitors, known as anti-PD-1s, which unlock the brakes that cancers trick the immune system into applying. Anti-PD-1 stands for anti-programmed cell death protein. ARMO also has two ongoing studies of AM-0010 in combination with chemotherapies in pancreatic cancer and triple-negative breast cancer. Other companies are working on drugs that target other tumor-secreted proteins, such as CTLA-4. AstraZeneca, for example, earlier this week said the combination of its drug with the CTLA-4 treatment tremelimumab was successful in a small study of non-small cell lung cancer patients whose cancer had spread. South San Francisco-based biotech lord Genentech Inc. also is studying its immunotherapy agents alone and in combination with other companies' drugs. The key for 11-employee ARMO is that AM-0010 is an extended-play version of the cell-signaling protein interleukin-10, or IL-10. Because the drug is pegylated — extending its "half life" in the blood — it seems to trigger T cells that are integral parts of the immune system's attack on foreign invaders. In other words, ARMO's recombinant human IL-10 therapy seems to prime tumors and accelerate the immune system's recognition of the PD-1 protein on the cell surface. "We think that by giving an anti-PD-1 on top of the IL-10, you see it go faster to effectors" — the immune system's scouts — Van Vlasselaer said. "You're blocking T cells from going into quiescent mode. "
ARMO also has an early-stage trial of AM-0010 and an anti-PD-1 against melanoma. ARMO, meanwhile, is working on its own anti-PD-1 drug, licensed in the fall from Open Monoclonal Technology Inc. That drug could be in the clinic next year, Van Vlasselaer said, and then quickly move to studies in combination with AM-0010. "What we believe is that in the immuno-oncology space, it's important to have molecules that are affecting the immune suppression milieu of the tumor and eliciting immune responses to the tumor and causing tumors to be more immune-sensitive," Van Vlasselaer said. "The question is, who has that 'other' molecule to use in addition to the anti-PD-1 — and we think we have that. "
Ron covers biotech and sports business. Related Content