Atlas, Novartis Put $27M Into IFM to Battle Cancer, Autoimmune Diseases

Xconomy Boston — 

There is no shortage of companies out there trying to tweak our immune systems in one way or another to treat diseases like cancer. Today, IFM Therapeutics, a new startup seeded by Boston firm Atlas Venture, has joined the fray.

IFM, a startup in Cambridge, MA, disclosed a $27 million Series A round led by Atlas and Abingworth. Swiss pharma giant Novartis also chipped in on the round for IFM, which was incubated within Atlas and aims to develop drugs for cancer and inflammatory diseases.

Gary Glick is IFM’s CEO. Glick previously founded Lycera, an immunotherapy firm spun out of the University of Michigan in 2006. He was most recently its chief scientific officer until the company inked an option-to-buy deal with Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG) in June 2015, when he stepped down to work on an undisclosed new venture which today was revealed to be IFM.

“For a long time, I used to say if I got hit by a bus, the company would be in trouble,” Glick told Xconomy in 2015. “Now, it would just be a sad funeral. Lycera couldn’t be in better hands.”

As with Lycera, Glick will again be going after cancer and autoimmune disease (Lycera developed a drug for inflammatory bowel disease). His new company is developing small molecule drugs that target the innate immune system, the body’s first line of defense against foreign invaders.

IFM isn’t disclosing specifics about that strategy, just that its most advanced drug candidate is a “selective activator of a novel target” that could impact solid tumors. Its drugs are meant to either drive an immune response against cancer, or tamp down an overactive immune response to treat inflammatory diseases (IFM didn’t specify which diseases).

Cancer immunotherapy, of course, is a white hot field in biotech. But even with the early promise of therapies like nivolumab (Opdivo) and pembrolizumab (Keytruda), which help reveal tumors to the immune system, many patients don’t respond to those treatments, which is why a wave of small and large companies alike are looking for other ways to coerce our immune systems into fighting cancer. A different startup in the Boston area, for instance, ImmuneXcite, has a technology that aims to lure neutrophils, part of the innate immune system, into the cancer battle. Others like Jounce Therapeutics and Surface Oncology (also an Atlas startup) have different methods.

“While proteins in the innate immune system represent an attractive landscape of therapeutic targets, they have been notoriously difficult to drug,” Atlas partner and IFM chairman Jean-Francois Formela said in a statement.

Abingworth partner Vincent Miles has joined IFM’s board along with Formela in conjunction with the funding. Aside from Glick, the company’s other co-founders are Matthias Geyer and Eicke Latz of the Institute of Innate Immunity at the University of Bonn in Germany; and Anthony Opipari and Luigi Frianchi, both professors at the University of Michigan. Shomir Gosh, formerly of Tempero Pharmaceuticals, is IFM’s chief scientific officer, and former Vertex Pharmaceuticals executive Dennis Dean is the startup’s chief development officer.

Here’s more on Lycera, and Atlas’s strategy in seeding companies.