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With Cell-By-Cell Take on Drug Discovery, Immunitas Debuts With $39M

Xconomy Boston — 

A cancer tumor is a veritable patchwork of cells with a variety of genetic fingerprints.

Immunitas Therapeutics is using single-cell genomics—an approach that studies the genetic activity of individual cells—to peer deeply into patient tumors and more precisely determine what is fueling the growth.

With that knowledge, the company plans to develop new targets for treating forms of the disease based on what it learns about the interactions between immune cells and cancer cells around tumors.

Now the Boston company has raised $39 million to advance compounds discovered with its computational platform into human testing by the end of 2022.

The startup was founded by venture capital firm Longwood Fund, itself started about a decade ago by a trio of biotechies who worked together at Sirtris Pharmaceuticals through its 2008 acquisition for $720 million by British drug giant GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK).

Lea Hachigian, a Longwood principal, is president of Immunitas. She told Xconomy that Longwood found out about the platform, which had been developed and in use in the labs of its scientific cofounders for about three years, this winter.

The progress it had made—Immunitas already has multiple potential monoclonal antibody treatments in its pipeline—prompted the venture firm to turn the tech into a company.

Treatments for cancer based on the genetic signature of a tumor, known as checkpoint inhibitors, have been able to help many cancer patients who previously had few options for treatment. But those treatments are only relevant for about 15 percent to 20 percent of cancer patients, Hachigian says.

Combination approaches, in which drug developers mix and match some of those therapies, haven’t proven to be a panacea either.

“Those approaches are exciting, but they have been limited so far in what they’ve yielded in the clinic in terms of efficacy,” she says.

“There a bunch of patients who haven’t been able to benefit from some of these treatments,” she says—and those are the people for whom Immunitas is aiming to develop new treatments.

It plans to analyze cells from specific patient subgroups, such as people with a well-defined form of a disease or those who have developed resistance to a certain kind of treatment. The company’s technology has also led it to identify biomarkers that it intends to use to guide its selection of patients for clinical trials. The idea is that a drug developed from those samples would be targeted at that group.

It is also looking to set itself apart from other drug discovery efforts by analyzing human samples, avoiding the misleading signals that can be sent by animal tests.

Single cell genomics pioneer Aviv Regev, a computational biologist and core member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, was an early collaborator on the project.

Hachigian likened the platform to noise-canceling headphones for tumor biology in how it allows researchers to hone in on drivers of tumor progression.

The company’s lead program is designed around a target Immunitas discovered by studying a tumor that is resistant to an existing treatment. Since then it has determined the target is overexpressed in other tumor types, too, both liquid and solid.

Hachigian says the company’s deep immunology expertise also set it apart from others using single-cell genomics to find cancer drugs. One of its scientific founders, Kai Wucherpfennig, heads the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s department of cancer immunology and virology. (Its others are Mario Suvà, a physician-scientist in the department of pathology at Massachusetts General Hospital; and MIT’s Dane Wittrup, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor in Chemical Engineering and Biological Engineering.)

Immunitas isn’t the only startup that’s looking cell by cell in hopes of making new biological discoveries that lead to treatments. Regev, in fact, is a co-founder of Cambridge, MA-based Celsius Therapeutics, another new company using single cell genomics to advance its drug discovery efforts.

Celsius launched last year with $65 million in Series A funding led by Third Rock Ventures.

In addition to Longwood, two big pharma companies are among Immunitas’s biggest backers. Its Series A was led by Leaps by Bayer and Novartis Venture Fund, those companies’ respective venture arms. Other institutional investors in the round include Evotec, M Ventures, and Alexandria Venture Investments.

The company has five full-time employees and is based in BioLabs, an incubator in Kendall Square. By the end of next year, it plans to have added another 10 or so. And the following year, when it projects it will move into human testing, Immunitas plans to tack on perhaps another 10 more employees to fuel its clinical development efforts.