Oncoresponse Inc., a company formed by Theraclone Sciences Inc. and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center to screen and discover therapeutically relevant antibodies from patients successfully treated with immunotherapy, has completed a $40 million series B equity financing. Proceeds of the round will support the advancement of five candidates into preclinical and clinical development, the Seattle-based company said.

Cliff Stocks, Oncoresponse's CEO, told BioWorld that two of the company's antibody candidates are moving closer to investigational new drug (IND) filings, the first of which could yield an IND as early as the third quarter of 2020. Clinical data from the first program to hit the clinic would likely emerge in the first half of 2021, he said.

The other three candidates are still in preclinical development, and will likely be declared as development candidates throughout 2020, Stocks said. All would likely be combined with currently approved PD-1 and PD-L1 cancer immunotherapies in an effort to boost response rates, which remain lower than hoped in most indications.

The company's antibody candidates fall into three broad categories: "The first, and probably most exciting for us, are antibodies that target tumor-associated macrophages or myeloid-derived suppressor cells," Stocks said. "We see that they can remove, or re-polarize the immune cells in the tumor microenvironment {TME] to create a more robust, immune-favorable environment in the TME that will allow response rates to occur at a higher level." It's that category into which the company's two most advanced antibody candidates fall.

Applications for the candidates could include any of the classic tumor types that respond to immunotherapy, such as melanoma, non-small-cell lung cancer, colorectal cancer, breast cancer and prostate cancer. However, as Oncoresponse's team works through its preclinical data, it will prioritize those in which it expects its antibodies will have the best effect in combination with checkpoint blockade, Stocks said.

The second and third categories of antibodies the company is exploring are those that prevent or reverse the exhaustion of natural killer (NK) cells and those that could be used prophylactically to prevent the toxicities that are associated with CAR T therapies.

Oncoresponse was founded in late 2015, with the initial closing of a $9.5 million series A financing co-led by Arch Venture Partners, Canaan Partners and MD Anderson. It then went on to bring in an additional $13 million, bringing its total series A financing to $22.5 million at its final closing, announced in March 2017. All of its candidates have been derived from Theraclone's I-Star technology platform, which enables rapid testing of tens of thousands of fully human antibodies to identify those with singular biological function and activity. The technology has been applied to both "mine" the immune repertoire of patients who have responded exceptionally well to cancer immunotherapies and to look at serum across patients with an eye to developing therapies that can be used across tumor types to diminish immune suppression. (See BioWorld Today, Oct. 7, 2015.)

While Oncoresponse has relied heavily on its platform over the past few years, "at this stage, we are more focused on the antibodies we have in hand, and moving those through preclinical validation and then into the clinic," Stocks said. "And, of course, we may partner some of these programs," he said.

Rivervest Venture Partners led the series B round, with participation from new investors, Redmile Group and Qatar Investment Authority (QIA). John McKearn, a managing director at Rivervest, and Nathan Jorgensen, the lead for QIA's health care group, both joined Oncoresponse's board in conjunction with the financing. Existing investors in Oncoresponse, Alexandria Venture Investments, Arch, the HT Family Office, Canaan, Helsinn Investment Fund and William Marsh Rice University, also participated.

Oncoresponse's 18-person team continues to work closely with MD Anderson, Stocks said, which not only provides it with nearly unlimited access to cancer patient samples from "elite" responders, but also assistance from cancer experts at one of the most active immunotherapy treatment centers in the nation. The company has also moved to build its own in-house scientific expertise, through the hiring of oncology experts Anil Singhal and Kamal Puri. Singhal joined Oncoresponse following his tenure at Abbvie Inc., where he oversaw the global regulatory approvals of Empliciti (elotuzumab) in multiple myeloma and Zinbryta (daclizumab) in multiple sclerosis. Puri joined following his tenure at Celgene Corp. and Gilead Sciences Inc., where he contributed to the approval of Zydelig (idelalisib).

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