Avalon Leads $18M in Early Funding for Cancer Immunotherapy Startup

Xconomy San Diego — 

[Note: The headline has been corrected to better describe the company’s type of funding. 9/27/16, 2:09 p.m.] Fortis Therapeutics, a new San Diego biotech, has raised $18 million in initial funding to develop drugs for hard-to-treat prostate and bone marrow cancers.

San Diego’s Avalon Ventures led the Series A round, and has established Fortis at COI Pharma, the firm’s biotech incubator (which now houses 16 life sciences startups). Bregua Corp., Lilly Asia Ventures, Osage University Partners, and Vivo Capital joined in the deal, according to a statement from Avalon.

Fortis is licensing the technology behind the drug program from the University of California, San Francisco, where it was developed in the lab of Bin Liu. Liu has identified a protein on the surface of tumor cells that the cells use to take in nutrients. Fortis declined to divulge more details about the target, but said Liu has submitted a paper on the topic to a scientific journal.

Fortis intends to develop new antibody drug conjugates—a kind of treatment that links a monoclonal antibody with a small-molecule chemical. The antibody, mimicking the body’s own defense system, hones in on the target protein and delivers the small molecule “payload” into the tumor cell.

Avalon partner Jay Lichter, who is serving as Fortis CEO, said he would like to begin clinical trials of the lead drug within 18 months in patients with late-stage metastatic multiple myeloma and castrate-resistant prostate cancer who have no other treatment options.

The lead antibody drug conjugate (ADC) itself will not require Fortis to develop any new technology, Lichter said. “We’re not inventing anything on the ADC,” he said. “We’re going with what’s well-known and well-established in terms of putting it together.”

In addition to prostate and multiple myeloma, Lichter said Liu’s lab has studied the lead drug and its target in colorectal cancer and mesothelioma (a rare cancer of the lung and abdomen), and conducted toxicology studies in healthy monkeys. Fortis also has recruited a prominent prostate cancer researcher, Eric Small of UCSF, to the company’s scientific advisory board.