Surface Oncology Raises $35M to Develop Cancer Immunotherapies

Surface Oncology of Cambridge, MA, announced today a $35 million Series A round led by Atlas Venture, Fidelity Biosciences, New Enterprise Associates, and Lilly Ventures.

Surface wants to develop cancer immunotherapies, but acting CEO Dave Grayzel (pictured) says it’s got different ideas than Juno Therapeutics (NASDAQ: JUNO), Novartis (NYSE: NVS), Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY), Amgen (NASDAQ: AMGN), and others with successful or promising programs that use either “checkpoint inhibitors”—monoclonal antibodies to block proteins that put a check on the immune system—or genetically engineered T cells that become tumor killers.

It’s important to note that, beyond the hype around cancer immunotherapy, the field is in its early days. The checkpoint inhibitors such as Bristol’s ipiliumumab (Yervoy) have been approved only for melanoma, or skin cancer, and one looks promising in lung cancer. But their effect on hematological cancers has so far been disappointing. The other major type of cancer immunotherapy, based on the genetic engineering of a patient’s own immune T cells, looks extremely promising in hematological cancers but is completely unproven in solid tumors.

Surface wants to go after solid tumors—breast, ovarian, and colon cancer, for example—that haven’t responded well to other programs, with drugs that either act alone, or perhaps in combination with some of the checkpoint inhibitors.

To do so, Surface intends to target cells that play various roles in the tumor micro-environment, that is, the space where the tumor and the body’s immune system interact. (The firm’s name refers to the activity at the surface of the tumor cells, Grayzel told Xconomy.) Some activities Surface wants to disrupt or enhance include the way the immune system recognizes tumor cells as pathogens, and the way certain cytokines and metabolites tamp down immune response.

Grayzel, who is an Atlas Venture partner, says Surface could have its first drug in the clinic in two years; all the work so far has been in-house, nothing has been licensed from outside sources. The firm will announce more senior scientific leadership this winter and publish research within six months, Grayzel says.

Other investors in the round are Amgen Ventures, Novartis Institute for Biomedical Research, and Elliott Sigal, former head of R&D at Bristol-Myers Squibb. Sigal is also a board member of Philadelphia gene therapy firm Spark Therapeutics, which filed last week its paperwork to go public.

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