Immuno-Oncology Fever Rages as Novartis Snaps Up CoStim

Xconomy Boston — 

How much is Big Pharma salivating over cancer immunotherapy these days? CoStim Pharmaceuticals, a little startup just about a year removed from its first big funding round, has already been snatched up by Swiss pharma giant Novartis.

Novartis has paid an undisclosed sum to acquire CoStim, a Cambridge, MA-based startup backed by MPM Capital, Atlas Venture, Johnson & Johnson Development Corp. (the venture arm of Johnson & Johnson), and Partners Innovation Fund. Little has been made public about CoStim so far, other than a few details about its founders and its mission—to develop cancer immunotherapies commonly known as “checkpoint inhibitors,” antibodies that remove a cloaking mechanism that tumors use to hide from the immune system.

Major drugmakers are counting on checkpoint inhibitors to be a key part of the next generation of combination cancer regimens. Bristol-Myers Squibb, Merck, and Roche/Genentech, for instance, are all developing these types of antibodies and taking them on a massive race through clinical trials. Many of the big pharmaceutical companies are even banding together to test these types of antibodies in tandem with a number of experimental or approved cancer drugs, trying to find the most effective combinations.

Novartis hasn’t been part of those tie-ups, but it is at the forefront—along with Seattle-based Juno Therapeutics—of another subsector of cancer immunotherapy. In 2012, it cut a deal with Carl June’s group at the University of Pennsylvania to develop “chimeric antigen receptor” modified T-cells, or CAR-T immunotherapy, which is supposed to use gene therapy to turn a patient’s T-cells into tumor killers. Novartis said in a statement that the CoStim buyout will give it “additional arrows in [its] quiver” to put together combination cancer regimens.

CoStim doesn’t have a specific antibody candidate as of yet. Novartis only said in its release that CoStim has “late discovery stage immunotherapy programs” directed at several targets, among them PD-1, one of the key molecular targets for checkpoint inhibitors. The company was founded based around the work of Harvard University immunologists Arlene Sharpe and Vijay Kuchroo, and Gordon Freeman of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. MPM seeded the company, and then co-led a $10 million Series A round with Atlas that closed in early 2013.

MPM managing director Robert Millman was CoStim’s initial president before handing the position over to Dan Hicklin, once the vice president of oncology for Merck (Hicklin was also CoStim’s chief scientific officer). Another MPM managing director, Luke Evnin, was CoStim’s chairman. Atlas partners Jean-Francois Formela and Josh Resnick were on CoStim’s board.

Though it’s unclear just what type of return CoStim’s investors are getting on their investment, Atlas partner Bruce Booth called it a “significant, top-decile return” in a blog post today. You can read about the startup’s story on the blog, which is posted at