The research challenge facing the scientific founders of newly launched Immunitas Therapeutics Inc. was getting human samples to deeply analyze in their quest to understand autoimmunity. While the research continued slowly, the science raced ahead.
“Technologically, it just wasn’t possible to do this before,” Lea Hachigian, co-founder, director and president of Immunitas and a principal at the Longwood Fund, told BioWorld.
Immunitas was founded by the Longwood Fund and the financing was led by Leaps by Bayer and the Novartis Venture Fund, and joined by investors that include Evotec, M Ventures and Alexandria Venture Investments.
Boston-based Immunitas plans to take its newly announced $39 million series A financing to push its first programs, monoclonal antibody therapeutics with single-agent activity, from preclinical models to the clinic sometime in 2021.
The company focuses on understanding the immunobiology of human tumors with techniques that include single-cell genomics and antibody development. It uses human samples in its R&D and refrains when possible from using animal models in its approach to cancer drug development.
“Single-cell genomic sequencing has tremendous promise to help unravel the interactions between immune cells and cancer cells in tumors to advance cancer drug development, but focusing it appropriately to discover meaningful new targets based on human biology has been challenging,” said Kai Wucherpfennig, one of the company’s scientific founders and professor and chair of the Department of Cancer Immunology and Virology at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School.
Hachigian knew Wucherpfennig from her work at Longwood and had been on the hunt for an opportunity to collaborate with him. While Hachigian was at Longwood-founded Tscan Therapeutics Inc., she buttonholed him to see if he were a fit.
“He told us about the platform he was building, how they set up the single-cell platform and honed in on the downstream immunology,” she said. “That had been going on for three years before Immunitas was founded.”
It wasn’t until about a year ago that the time was right for a collaboration between the two. The science, much of it based on deep computational biology, and the people had met at the right time to research therapeutic targets directly from human immunology. The platform provided biomarkers for patient selection, allowing for an accelerated development plan. The biggest challenge is moving preclinical research into human therapies “while avoiding the false signals often seen in animal models,” according to Jürgen Eckhardt, the head of Leaps by Bayer, Bayer AG’s strategic venture capital unit, one of Immunitas’ leading funders. “The scientific founders of Immunitas have elegantly solved this problem by dissecting the biology of immune cells in human tumors directly.”
Hachigian had considered the possibility of making the leap from animal models to human. So had Wucherpfennig.
“Kai had been thinking about this for a long time, looking at it from an autoimmunity perspective,” she said. “It’s so different from what it looks like in human patients. The animal models were not predictive of what you’d see in human patients.”
The animal models are not, however, completely off the research table.
“If a target looks good, we might use it as secondary modeling,” Hachigian said.
The other scientific founders are Mario Suvà, associate professor in the Department of Pathology at Massachusetts General Hospital and at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and also Dane Wittrup, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering and Biological Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The Longwood model calls for Hachigian to stay at Immunitas – Latin for “immunity” – while the team is being built. There are currently five full-time employees at the company and a handful of consultants. Looking ahead, Hachigian expects adding about 16 or 17 more by the end of 2020 and then perhaps another 10 the year after that, when the company hopes to be in the clinic.
Partnering could be in the company’s future. Word travels fast. There have already been inquiries.
“We’re in an early stage,” Hachigian said. “Partnering came up earlier. There has been interest from some pharma companies, but we’ve felt it’s too early for that. Of course, we’re considering options. But we’ll build our own capabilities and internally we can push things forward. If years down road, we would consider options to collaborate, especially when there’s a nice overlap.”