David Southwell, a seasoned pharma exec and CEO of newly funded Tscan Therapeutics Inc., called from a small, unadorned conference room on the Harvard campus to talk about his new company. He's used to being on the clinical development side, where the accommodations are a bit more posh, but nonetheless he's pleased to be investigating T-cell therapy for cancer patients.
With the momentum of a $48 million series B fundraiser behind him and the company, the next move is to nearby Waltham, Mass., where there's more room for the company's 20 employees.
"That enough to keep us going into clinical trials," Southwell told BioWorld, which he expects to be "at a minimum into 2021."
Investors include the Novartis Venture Fund, Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research, Bessemer Venture Partners and GV. The founding investor is the Longwood Fund.
Tscan's platform, created by Stephen Elledge, professor of genetics and of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital, aims to design therapies to reprogram patients' T cells to recognize and fight a broad range of cancers using naturally occurring T-cell receptors (TCRs) that recognize shared cancer targets. Southwell said the T cells in both liquid and solid tumors have the potential to recognize and eliminate their own cancer cells.
"Elledge had been working on a way to open up the field of immunotherapy," Southwell said. "He's been working on this for seven years. He wanted to find novel antigens. There are usually 10 or so typical targets but he's been building a library of antigens. He's developed a way to measure the precise biology between a cytotoxic T cell and a target."
Elledge is deeply experienced in DNA damage repair and received the 2015 Lasker Prize in Basic Medicine and the 2017 Breakthrough Prize in the life sciences. Southwell said the platform's use could well extend beyond cancer into autoimmunity and infectious disease.
"The power of TCRs is they're potent. We're going after intracellular targets. It's not like CAR T," he added. "The challenge is finding off-target effects and we have a precise way of doing that. The technology has morphed to the point where we can characterize targets and find new antigens. Our approach is to find new antigens."
The platform offers several options for Tscan's future development, Southwell said.
"As CEO of a clinical-stage company, you're babysitting and waiting for the science to play out," he said. "With this unique platform, there's no one else doing it. ... I started calling around to people I know and they all said no one else is addressing immunotherapy in way you described."
He said he's looking into discovery work for other pharmaceutical companies that are investigating targets other his Tscan's.
"For the time being the strategy is to do some licensing deals, but we want to get the lead compound and into the clinic ourselves," he added.
Southwell, who joined Tscan in October, said the step from a clinical-stage company to a discovery-stage company comes with a not unwelcome steep learning curve. He was president and CEO of Inotek Pharmaceuticals Corp. through Inotek's merger with Rocket Pharmaceuticals Inc., a gene therapy-based biotechnology company. He also served as executive vice president and chief financial officer (CFO) of Human Genome Sciences Inc. until its merger with Glaxosmithkline plc, and also as executive vice president and CFO of Sepracor Inc., which was later sold to Dainippon Sumitomo. He's on the board of Rocket Pharmaceuticals and PTC Therapeutics Inc., and he serves on the board of advisers at the Tuck School at Dartmouth College, from which he received an MBA. His BA is from Rice University.
Chief Scientific Officer Gavin MacBeath joined Tscan from Abpro Therapeutics Inc., where he was also the chief scientific officer. He was co-founder and senior vice president of discovery at Merrimack Pharmaceuticals Inc. He was the first fellow at Harvard's Bauer Center for Genomics Research, as well as an assistant and associate professor in the Department of Chemistry & Chemical Biology at Harvard University, then as a lecturer and principal investigator at Harvard Medical School.
Chief Business Officer Henry Rath comes from Seres Therapeutics Inc., where he was senior vice president of corporate development. CFO Robert Crane has been in place since Tscan's quiet creation in April 2018. He picked up experience at Sirtris Pharmaceuticals Inc. and at Istat Corp.