The Dutch startup Neogene Therapeutics has become the second T-cell therapy developer to raise a spectacularly large Series A round in Europe this year.
The Series A round was co-led by the VC firms EcoR1 Capital, Syncona, and Jeito Capital.
Neogene Therapeutics will use part of the €93M proceeds to advance its T-cell therapy immuno-oncology candidate into phase I clinical trials by 2022. The company will also use part of the funds to expand its offices in Europe and the US.
The Amsterdam-based startup was founded in 2018 to develop T-cell therapies for a wide range of solid tumors. Neogene’s T-cell therapies generally resemble CAR T-cell therapies, in that the company takes immune T cells from a cancer patient and genetically engineers them to kill cancer cells before returning them to the patient.
However, CAR T cells are engineered to produce cancer-busting proteins on their surface called chimeric antigen receptors (CARs), while the cancer-busting proteins in Neogene’s therapy are called T cell receptors (TCRs). CAR T-cell therapies are limited so far to blood cancer, whereas TCR T-cell therapies could be better at penetrating solid tumors.
The most advanced TCR T-cell therapies, such as those developed by the UK-based Adaptimmune Therapeutics, are in phase II. While many TCR T-cell therapies in development detect common cancer targets across many patients, Neogene’s therapy detects mutated protein fragments that are generally unique to a particular patient’s cancer, called neoantigens. This means that Neogene’s therapies would be personalized to patients.
According to Rafaèle Tordjman, Founder and CEO of Jeito Capital, this approach potentially has advantages over non-personalized TCR T-cell therapies such as sensitivity, specificity, and scale.
One of the biggest challenges of targeting neoantigens in personalized cancer therapy is knowing which will be the best at triggering each patient’s immune system to hunt down cancer. Neogene’s approach is to take a tumor biopsy, screen the sample for TCR genes that are primed against neoantigens, and then engineer the best of these TCR genes into the cell therapy.
This was Jeito’s first investment since its founding this year, and it appears to have chosen seasoned biotech entrepreneurs. The founders of Neogene, Carsten Linnemann and Ton Schumacher, have an exit on their track record: their previous biotech company T-Cell Factory was acquired by the US Kite Pharma in 2015.
Tordjman told me that the round was so large in part because of the founders’ track record, as well as the fact that they “have a tremendous depth of scientific expertise in the cell therapy and specifically neoantigen fields.”
Personalized TCR T-cell therapies could be effective against cancer, but they can also be expensive to manufacture. Tordjman declined to provide details of how scalable Neogene’s production processes would be, but explained that the Series A would be used to develop the platform ready for clinical testing.
The TCR T-cell therapy field appears to be thriving in spite of the Covid-19 pandemic. Another TCR T-cell therapy startup that raised a big Series A in Europe this year was the German firm T-knife, which raked in €66M in early August. Other startups that have been active in the field include the Norway-based Zelluna Immunotherapy with a €7.5M funding round in June.
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