Dave Johnson has known UC San Diego physician and cancer reseacher Thomas Kipps for nearly 20 years. Now Johnson, CEO of San Diego-based cancer drug developer VelosBio, has secured $137 million to accelerate the company’s goal of developing targeted therapies based on an antibody program developed by Kipps that homes in on tumors with a specific genetic signature.
Johnson said it was Kipps’ work, which identified ROR1 as a promising cancer protein to target and developed a drug candidate that appeared to find cancer cells that expressed it without harming healthy cells, that “compelled” him to take the role at VelosBio. Johnson’s previous stint as chief executive was at the helm of Acerta Pharma, a blood cancer biotech in which AstraZeneca (NYSE: AZN) bought a majority stake for $4 billion in a deal that closed in 2016.
ROR1 is an oncofetal protein, meaning it’s typically only present during fetal development. However, is also found in some cancer patients.
“This is an ideal target because it’s something that would be expressed … on cancer cells, or many cancer cells, but not on normal tissues,” said Johnson in an interview.
On the strength of Kipps’ discoveries, Johnson, who splits time between San Diego and Seattle, signed on to get the company up and running in late 2017. At the start of 2018, VelosBio joined the Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ) JLABS incubator in San Diego. In October of that year it raised its first institutional round of funding: a $58 million Series A financing led by UK-based firm Arix Bioscience and Sofinnova Ventures, in Menlo Park, CA.
VelosBio used those funds to create a type of cancer drug known as an antibody-drug conjugate (ADC), which links together an antibody and a cancer-killing “payload” with the intention of making delivery of a cytotoxin more precise. That drug candidate, VLS-101, which uses common ADC payload MMAE, is in Phase 1 testing for patients with certain types of leukemia and lymphoma; the company plans to start evaluating it as a potential treatment for solid tumors later this year.
“What we saw in [Kipps’] antibody was an antibody that was showing exquisite specificity for ROR1 … and characteristics like internalization, meaning the antibody was internalized by target cells very rapidly, and that was foundationally very attractive for us to utilize it as the backbone for the targeting mechanism for an antibody-drug conjugate,” Johnson said. “This was why we felt we had something special to build from.”
The company—whose name comes from a Greek word meaning “arrow”—also has in its pipeline preclinical ADCs, which it describes as next-generation versions of VLS-101. The plan is to design those using new kinds of linkers (the connection between antibody and payload) and cytotoxins.VelosBio is also developing a bispecific antibody, a kind of drug that’s structured to hit two targets simultaneously.
Another San Diego company, Oncternal Therapeutics (NASDAQ: ONCT), is also developing cancer drugs designed to target cells that express ROR1. Its lead drug candidate, cirmtuzumab, is in a Phase 1/2 study in combination with AbbVie (NYSE: ABBV) drug ibrutinib (Imbruvica) as a potential treatment for patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia and mantle cell lymphoma. The biotech joined the ranks of public companies last year via reverse merger.
VelosBio’s latest financing takes the total the company has raised over $200 million. The new funds will allow it to expand its studies of VLS-101 and get at least one of its preclinical programs into the clinic in 2021, Johnson said.