Immune Design Grabs $32.5M, Cashing in on Cancer Immunotherapy Rush

Seattle-based Immune Design imagines growing into one of the next big players in immunotherapy for cancer, and today it’s secured some big venture bucks to see if it can deliver the goods.

Immune Design is announcing today it has raised $32.5 million in a Series C venture financing that could be worth as much as $49 million if it hits certain milestones. The Column Group, an existing investor, led the round along with new investor Topspin Partners. The deal included existing investors Alta Partners, Versant Ventures, Osage Partners and ProQuest Investments. Sanofi-Genzyme BioVentures also joined the syndicate.

Immune Design has now raised $84.5 million in three venture financings since its founding in 2008.

That money is going to support an approach for stimulating the immune system to fight cancer—a field that has tantalized researchers for decades but which has only recently generated near-universal excitement across oncology. Seattle-based Dendreon (NASDAQ: DNDNstumbled in the marketplace with a first-of-its-kind immunotherapy, but Bristol-Myers Squibb has succeeded with a different approach, an antibody that releases a braking mechanism on the immune system, unleashing it to attack tumors. The success of Bristol-Myers’s ipilimumab (Yervoy) has electrified cancer research in the past year, along with exciting clinical results for newer immunotherapies known as “checkpoint inhibitors” (including Bristol-Myers’s nivolumab) that essentially act to remove a molecular mechanism tumors use to disguise themselves from the immune system.

The field is burdened by a long history of failures that came before Dendreon, but sentiment has turned based in large part on results presented in June by at the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting. Researchers are particularly excited because they’ve seen these drugs produce long-lasting responses in multiple tumor types. Most of the big advances in molecularly targeted therapies extend survival for a few months, but then the tumor ultimately finds a way to resist the drug and ends up killing the patient.

While the critical trials for the new immunotherapies still need to be done and stand up to the test of time, there is so much excitement now that companies are tripping over themselves to jam the term into just every investor slide deck they can. Cambridge, MA-based Jounce Therapeutics is one notable cancer immunotherapy startup that got going with a $47 million financing this year.

Immune Design enters this frenzy at an opportune time. Although it has been in business five years, it doesn’t yet have any data that says its approach is safe or effective for cancer treatment in human beings. But it does have a basic platform technology that, based on animal studies, says it has an unusual way to stimulate production of cytotoxic “killer” T-cells that could be combined with the other existing immunotherapies so that they can be effective for much larger groups of cancer patients, says CEO Carlos Paya.

“Venture capitalists aren’t the most flush now,” said Paya, pictured above. “We’re very excited about this vote of confidence.”

Whatever Immune Design has done to earn that vote of confidence, it also clearly has come along at a good time. “I don’t know them but it’s fair to say that immuno-oncology is definitely one of the hottest fields today for Pharma and VCs alike,” said Bruce Booth, a managing director with Atlas Venture in Cambridge, MA. “In 2011-12, rare orphan and genetic diseases were all the rage; today it’s I-O.”

Besides the overall hotness of the field, Immune Design was able to raise the dough—the biggest venture financing in Seattle biotech this year—for two reasons, Paya said.

First, the company made improvements in its technology platform which essentially took an academic prototype for lentiviral vectors from David Baltimore’s lab at Caltech, and turned it into a consistent industrial platform that can combine lentiviruses with any antigen (a specific marker on cancer cells) that researchers want to hit.

Second, Immune Design was able to … Next Page »

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