The field of cancer immunotherapy is so crowded and competitive these days that many companies are trying to stand by touting a next-generation approach. The latest company to do so is Oncorus, a Cambridge, MA-based startup that this morning closed a $57 million from a large group of investors.
Oncorus was incubated within MPM Capital last year and today closed a round led by MPM, Deerfield Management, Arkin Bio Ventures, Celgene, Excelyrate Capital, Long March Investment Fund, and MPM’s SunStates Fund.
The startup was founded by Mitchell Finer, a biotech veteran who most recently served as the chief scientific officer of gene therapy developer Bluebird Bio (NASDAQ: BLUE) for five years before leaving in 2015 to join MPM Capital as a managing director. Oncorus has recruited another recent biotech executive to its team, Tom Chalberg, who resigned as Avalanche Biotechnologies’ CEO last year and is currently Oncorus’ chief operating officer.
Immuno-oncology, as its known, is as hot a field as there is in biotech. Companies are trying a variety of technologies, and mixing and matching different drugs, to try to expand the reach of treatments that spark the immune system to battle cancer. Despite all the hype, such immunotherapies are still only effective in a fraction of cancer patients. That’s why, even with all the competition, a number of startups are still entering the fray and pursuing new approaches. One such company is three-year-old Jounce Therapeutics, which just this morning inked a wide-ranging alliance with Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG). Alpine Immune Sciences, a startup from Dendreon founder Mitch Gold, bagged a $48 million Series A round last month. Several others, like Surface Oncology and ImmuneXcite in the Boston area alone, are in the mix.
Oncorus’s plan, meanwhile, is to develop what it calls, of course, a next-generation platform of oncolytic viruses—viruses engineered to get into tumor cells, replicate, and cause them to explode, in the process activating the immune system to destroy any remaining cancer. Oncolytic viruses are one of several emerging immunotherapy tools, like checkpoint inhibitors, which help reveal tumors to the immune system, or “CAR-T” cellular immunotherapy, which modifies patients’ own immune cells to help fight their disease. Amgen (NASDAQ: AMGN) won FDA approval of the first oncolytic virus treatment, talimogene laherparepvec (Imlygic), for melanoma, last October. It acquired that program by paying $1 billion for BioVex in 2011.
Oncorus says that is developing an oncolytic herpes simplex virus, and is targeting deadly, aggressive cancers like the brain cancer glioblastoma. The program, currently in preclinical testing, is based on the work of University of Pittsburgh scientists Joseph Glorioso III and Paola Grandi, both of whom are on the startup’s scientific advisory board. Oncorus didn’t provide much detail in the announcement, or on its website, about how its platform improves upon current oncolytic virus technologies, however.