Sanofi-Genzyme Joins $12M Round for T-Cell Therapy Startup, Unum

Xconomy Boston — 

It’s no secret that cancer immunotherapy is exploding. The pharma and biotech world is abuzz trying to find the best ways to harness the power of the immune system to fight cancer. Startups are getting in on the act, too—like a new Cambridge, MA-based company, Unum Therapeutics, that just came out of the woodwork today with $12 million in backing from some of the Boston area’s biggest life sciences players.

Unum has hauled in a $12 million Series A round led by Fidelity Biosciences, Atlas Venture, and Sanofi-Genzyme BioVentures, the VC arm of Sanofi. It’s the second Series A an Atlas-backed biotech has secured in two weeks. Another cancer treatment developer, Raze Therapeutics, announced a $24 million Series A round on Oct. 14.

Unum is the latest startup touting a way to essentially reprogram the immune system to seek out and attack tumors. Companies like Seattle-based Juno Therapeutics and Santa Monica, CA-based Kite Pharma (NASDAQ: KITE), for instance, remove a sick patient’s own T cells, engineer them to turn them into better cancer killers, and infuse them back into a patient. Novartis is pursuing a similar strategy with Carl June’s group at the University of Pennsylvania. That approach is known as chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy, or “CAR-T” therapy for short, and it has stirred excitement across the scientific community because of the potential to reduce tumors to undetectable levels.

Unum’s take on this is what it’s calling a platform for developing cancer treatments with an “antibody-coupled T-cell receptor,” or ACTR—essentially, engineering T cells to find tumors with the help of antibodies that target molecules on the surface of different types of cancer cells. On his blog, Atlas partner and Unum boardmember Bruce Booth says that this approach differentiates the startup from others in the field because ACTR treatments “are not restricted to a single antigen or narrow set of tumors, but instead can be universally applied to augment any antibody-directed anti-cancer therapy with a cell-surface antigen.”

The technology was developed by scientific founder Dario Campana, who created the platform at the National University of Singapore and at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital developed a CAR-T approach that’s being used by a number of pharma and biotech companies.

Unum will use the cash to get its first candidate, which hasn’t been disclosed, through clinical proof-of-concept studies.

Charles Wilson, a former Novartis partnering executive, is Unum’s president and CEO. Seth Ettenberg, recently the head of Novartis Oncology Biotherapeutics’ site in Cambridge, is Unum’s chief scientific officer. Booth, Wilson, and Fidelity partner Ben Auspitz make up the startup’s board of directors.

You can read more about the startup at Booth’s blog.