East Coast Life Sciences Roundup: Jounce, Tokai, Lux, & More

Xconomy National — 

Companies in the life sciences centers around Boston and New York made news this week with movement on cancer drug programs and efforts to create therapies by influencing the immune system. Maverick VC firm Lux Capital raised another $245 million, and health care companies will share in it. Meanwhile, scores of New York City health tech startups are bidding for city grants of as much as $100,000.

Third Rock Ventures of Boston unveiled its latest portfolio company, Jounce Therapeutics of Cambridge, MA, which will use its $47 million in Series A financing to develop an eclectic arsenal of experimental cancer immunotherapy drugs. Jounce is following in the footsteps of other companies such as Dendreon (NASDAQ: DNDN) and Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY), which have already created drugs that activate the immune system to fight cancer. Jounce didn’t reveal exactly which molecular mechanisms it will target, but its drug candidates are likely to include proteins that can control molecular switches such as checkpoint inhibitors, which can act as brakes on the immune system.

—Another Cambridge MA-based company, Tokai Pharmaceuticals, is also taking on larger competitors as it recruits participants in a 170-patient clinical trial of its drug candidate galeterone in prostate cancer this year. The private company is hoping its oral pill will act as a triple threat against the disease by attacking the same macromolecules that are targets for prostate cancer drugs marketed by Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ) and by Medivation (NASDAQ: MDVN), in a partnership with Astellas Pharma. Tokai is also vying against other companies with prostate cancer drugs in clinical trials: Cambridge, MA-based Millennium/Takeda and Aragon Pharmaceuticals of San Diego.

Catabasis Pharmaceuticals of Cambridge, MA announced that its lead drug candidate was well-tolerated in three Phase I safety trials—which encouraged the company to move ahead with testing in inflammatory bowel disease and Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. The experimental drug hooks together two components that are similar to items found in family medicine cabinets: aspirin and fish oil. Catabasis uses a proprietary linker to unite salicylate, a common anti-inflammatory agent, with an Omega-3 fatty acid (docosahexaenoic acid) in a drug taken by mouth. Early signs support the company’s hopes that the combination will work better than salicylate alone.

—Drug giant Merck (NYSE: MRK) cemented a collaboration agreement that could lead to new therapies for autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis. The drug company, based in Whitehouse Station, NJ, signed its second pact in two years with biopharmaceutical firm Lycera of Plymouth, MI. Lycera is working on small molecule oral drugs to fill the unmet medical needs of as many as 50 million people in the United States who suffer from autoimmune disorders.

Lux Capital of New York and Palo Alto, CA makes bets on startups shunned by other financiers, including certain health care companies. But its investors came back for seconds when the venture firm offered its third fund with a goal to raise $200 million. Instead, Lux reaped $245 million for Lux Ventures III, making it the firm’s largest so far. The fund will invest in unconventional plays in life sciences, robotics, 3-D printing, and electronics. Previous health care bets of the VC firm include gene sequencing leader Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN) of San Diego and Vertex Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: VRTX) of Cambridge, MA. The firm’s new partners include former Pfizer CEO Jeff Kindler and former CIA director Jim Woolsey.

—More than a hundred health tech startups are waiting to hear whether they have a shot at New York City grants of as much as $100,000 to prove they can help medical care providers improve their operations. Boosters of the city’s growing health tech sector are sifting through scores of proposals to choose the health IT companies that could best fulfill the needs expressed by hospitals and other institutions that have agreed to participate in the Pilot Health Tech NYC program. Startups based in New York have a strong edge in the $1 million grant competition organized by the city’s economic development department to stimulate the formation of health tech businesses in the city. Successful applicants will be invited to matchmaking sessions with providers on Feb. 20 and 21—a prelude to another round of applications due May 27.