Even though November’s full moon had come and gone more than a week previous, Werewolf Therapeutics Inc. came out of the shadows Wednesday with a $56 million series A fundraiser to state its plans to develop immune-stimulatory therapeutics to trigger immune responses to cancer.
“The company’s name is based on a powerful analogy,” Werewolf’s founder, president and CEO, Daniel J. Hicklin, told BioWorld. “A werewolf is a creature that goes unnoticed and then is transformed under certain conditions.”
That fits the description of the Cambridge, Mass.-based company’s first area of interest, conditionally activated cytokines designed to deliver antitumor immunity. Its protein engineering platform, Predator, creates biologics to be systemically delivered in an inactivated format to prevent unwanted effects on non-target tissues. Once in the tumor microenvironment, the molecules are selectively activated to deliver the biological potency of cytokines and immune stimulators. It was an opportunity and a new modality Hicklin was pleased to pursue.
“One reason I got excited about this company was because it was something I found particularly challenging – to find a molecule to do what we’re trying to do,” he said.
He put his trust in the know-how of his protein structure engineers, and it paid off as the mechanisms were validated in proof-of-concept work as potent immune stimulators. One of the biggest challenges was sidestepping any potential harm to tissue during treatment. Now that the company is comfortable with the mechanism, Hicklin and his team will spend the next six months selecting the first two development programs to take into the clinic, which the series A allows them to do sometime in the next two years.
Trust is part of the management plan that Hicklin felt necessary when putting the company together. He is a Potenza Therapeutics Inc. and Costim Pharmaceuticals Inc. veteran, who also led the Biologics Strategy for Oncology and the Immuno-Modulation Discovery team at Merck Research Laboratories. He wanted familiar faces he could trust, so along came Cindy Seidel-Dugan, Werewolf’s chief scientific officer, who was part of the original team at Potenza, rising from vice president to senior vice president of research and ultimately CSO prior to the company’s acquisition by Astellas Pharma Inc. in 2018. She had also been vice president of biology for Costim and, like Hicklin, spent time at Merck Research Laboratories. Reid Leonard, Werewolf’s chief operating officer, spent 25 years at Merck & Co. and helped form the Merck Research Labs Venture Fund. David Cordo, the chief financial officer, is a Costim and Potenza vet, while William Winston, the vice president of research, was senior director and then vice president of antibody development at Potenza. Familiar faces all.
“Working with good people is key for me,” Hicklin said. “For every company I’ve worked for, in my early days to just recently, I like to keep my eye on the endgame. If you make more effective therapies for patients, you’ll come out OK.”
While Hicklin was at Potenza, and several months after the company brought home a $38 million series A, the company received an undisclosed amount of new money from a deal with Astellas to advance a portfolio of candidates that target immune checkpoint pathways, co-stimulatory signals and regulatory T cells, with Tokyo-based Astellas holding an option to buy out Potenza. In December 2018, Astellas acquired Potenza for an up-front fee of $164.6 million.
The series A allows Werewolf to raise its headcount from 17 employees to “around 30, sooner rather than later,” Hicklin said. The company is also on the hunt for potential partners. It’s not waiting for a full moon; mere paperwork got in the way. “We just started looking. We wanted to get the financing done first,” Hicklin said.
That financing was led by MPM Capital and the Longwood Fund, with Taiho Ventures, Arkin Bio Ventures, UPMC Enterprises and DC Investment Partners joining the round.