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computational lifting involved. When I asked Pfeffer for more details, he said, “These bioinformatics algorithms are complex and proprietary, and we are not disclosing how they are done.”)
Based on that information Neon could make a vaccine, personalized to each patient’s cancer, by producing synthetic versions of those neoantigens, perhaps as many as 15 or 20, and inject them into the body to activate the immune system against them.
Another possibility is to use the patients’ own T cells as a weapon. The T cell approach could be done in two ways, Pfeffer said. One method is to find T cells that have already recognized the key neoantigens, induce them to multiply outside the body, and then re-inject them into the patient. The other is to engineer a patient’s own T cells outside the body to be extra sensitive to those antigens, then reintroduce the cells back into the patient—something akin to the CAR-T cancer fighting products that Novartis, Juno Therapeutics, and Kite Pharma are racing to develop.
Production of personalized cancer treatments could be a time-consuming and expensive proposition, as immunotherapy pioneer Dendreon, bankrupted and sold off for pieces, found out. Pfeffer acknowledged Neon’s ambitions would require partners and collaborations to bring in key pieces, but that the field has progressed since the Dendreon days.
One technology Pfeffer said Neon can build in-house is immune monitoring—a deep understanding of the immune system’s interaction with cancer cells. It’s a specialty that Seattle’s Adaptive Biotechnologies has parlayed into hundreds of millions of dollars raised, building its own ambitions to become a drug developer. But Pfeffer said Neon isn’t working currently with Adaptive: “Perhaps we’ll partner with them or academic institutions, but we think we it’s a core capability inside our building.”
With either vaccines or T cell therapies, Neon’s products will likely be used in combination with drugs based on checkpoint inhibitors, Pfeffer said.
Neon’s scientific founders have already begun two clinical trials of neoantigen vaccines, one to treat glioblastoma, run by Catherine Wu at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the other to treat melanoma.
But Pfeffer said Neon hopes to have the first of its own vaccine products in a clinical trial next year. I asked if Neon also had rights to the products being tested by Wu and others. He declined to comment on intellectual property matters. He also declined to say which cancers Neon will go after first.
Third Rock has provided the majority of Neon’s funding, but Pfeffer declined to give specifics. Coinvestor Blavatnik’s presence is no coincidence. He helped seed some of the work that Neon is built upon, giving $5 million in 2009 to support Wu and Hacohen’s cancer vaccine research. Blavatnik also gave Harvard $50 million from his family foundation two years ago to boost life science research.