When Jounce Therapeutics launched with a big $47 million round last year, Merck was well behind in the race do bring the newest generation of cancer immunotherapy drugs—which harness the power of the immune system to fight tumors—to the market. Since that time, Merck has caught up to the pack. And now Jounce, which is pursuing its own ambitious cancer immunotherapy program, has nabbed one of the people responsible for that turnaround as its first full-time CEO.
Cambridge, MA-based Jounce today named Richard Murray, Merck’s former senior vice president of biologics and vaccines, as its new CEO. Murray will step in for interim CEO and Third Rock Ventures partner Cary Pfeffer, who helped get Jounce off the ground last year. Pfeffer will now serve as Jounce’s chairman.
Murray is taking over one of the more ambitious biotech startups to come out of Boston in recent years. Jounce aims to develop an unusually diverse portfolio of treatments in the hot and super competitive field of cancer immunotherapy.
Cancer immunotherapy has become perhaps the biggest battleground in life sciences after a series of key advances over the past few years. Big Pharmas like Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY), Merck (NYSE: MRK), AstraZeneca (NYSE: AZN), and several other companies have been trying to come up with and test as many combinations of so-called checkpoint inhibitors—which turn off a molecular switch that otherwise protects cancer from the immune system—as possible, hoping to find the most effective therapies. And new approaches have emerged, like so-called chimeric antigen receptor T-cell, or CAR-T technology, which seeks to use gene therapy to turn a patient’s T-cells into cancer killers.
Jounce’s founding idea was to combine a whole slew of cancer immunotherapy approaches into one company, and build a portfolio of different of drug candidates that work in different ways, rather than focusing on just one. The company was co-founded by Third Rock and a group of experts from MD Anderson (James Allision and Pam Sharma); the University of Chicago (Tom Gajewski); Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine (Drew Pardoll); and Georgetown University Medical Center (Louis Weiner).
Jounce hasn’t yet specifically said what its targets are, but Pfeffer previously told Xconomy that the drug prospects would come from three major categories. One of those is checkpoint inhibitors like Bristol-Myers’ imilimumab (Yervoy), which essentially release a brake on the immune system. Another is co-stimulatory molecules, which hit the accelerator, so to speak, boosting the immune response to cancer cells. The third category is drugs that hit molecular targets in the tumor microenvironment that make the cancer cells more or less vulnerable to the immune system.
Developing drug candidates and getting them into the clinic is the task for Murray, who was most recently tasked at Merck with helping advance protein drugs and vaccines across a variety of areas, among them cancer immunotherapy. Pfeffer said in a statement, for instance, that Murray was “instrumental” in getting Merck’s checkpoint inhibitor, pembrolizumab, through clinical development. (Merck recently filed an application with the FDA to approve the drug, leapfrogging past Bristol-Myers.) Before Merck, Murray had stints at PDL Biopharma and EOS Biotechnology, which Protein Design Labs bought in 2003.
“This is a seminal time in the field of cancer immunotherapy and I am thrilled to be joining Jounce during this exciting period,” said Murray, in a statement. “The company’s early investment in translational science, including strategic alliances with several major academic centers, along with the active engagement of Jounce’s founders, creates a unique opportunity to validate and advance the next generation of cancer immunotherapy targets and drugs.”