Mitch Gold, the former CEO of Dendreon, has just gotten some big backing for his latest cancer drug startup. Alpine Immune Sciences, a Seattle company touting a next-gen method of harnessing our body’s defenses against cancer, has raised a whopping $48 million Series A round.
The cash comes from a group of OrbiMed Advisors, Frazier Healthcare Partners, and Alpine BioVentures, the biotech hedge fund that seeded AIS and that Gold helped form in 2013 with former investment analyst David Miller. Gold is AIS’s chairman and acting CEO. Frazier’s Jamie Topper, OrbiMed’s Peter Thompson, and Alpine BioVentures’s Jay Venkatesan join Gold on the board.
Gold (pictured) is a controversial figure in biotech. As the former CEO of Dendreon, he led a pioneering effort in the field of immunotherapy. Dendreon made history by beating the odds to win FDA approval of sipuleucel-T (Provenge), an immunotherapy for prostate cancer, in April 2010. Gold raised about $2 billion to help Dendreon bring the drug to market and pocketed almost $27 million in two days of share sales after sipuleucel-T won FDA approval. But the treatment never lived up to its lofty expectations for a variety of reasons, from marketing struggles to reimbursement questions to competition from new prostate cancer drugs. Dendreon faltered, was buried in more than $600 million in debt, and filed for bankruptcy in 2014. Sipuleucel-T was ultimately sold to Valeant Pharmaceuticals.
Indeed, the Dendreon story has become a cautionary tale for an advancing wave of autologous immunotherapy treatments known as “CAR-T” therapies, which like sipuleucel-T, use a patient’s own cells. Some of the major questions hanging over these therapies are whether they’ll be scalable and how they’ll be priced, and Dendreon’s story is exhibit A as to what can happen if the model doesn’t work.
Since Gold left Dendreon in 2012, however, he’s enjoyed more success in the biotech startup world. He founded Alpine Biosciences in 2012, and Alpine BioVentures a year later. In 2014, he sold Alpine Biosciences to Oncothyreon (NASDAQ: ONTY) for $27 million in an all-stock deal worth 10 percent of Oncothyreon. In 2015, he formed AIS, which is developing immunotherapies that Thompson says in a statement have a chance to “move beyond current approaches to modulating the immune system.”
Those approaches are increasing in number. Checkpoint inhibitor drugs have begun to change cancer care, with a slew of drugs under development to boost their capabilities. CAR-T therapies could be on the market in the next few years, and several players have emerged with different ways of trying to expand their use. All of this has helped immunotherapy become one of the most competitive fields in biotech, while highlighting the limitations of the current wave of treatments. Checkpoint drugs only work in a fraction of patients, and CAR-T therapies are so far limited to a few blood cancers.
The vast potential of immunotherapy, combined with the field’s current limitations, are why there is so much money being invested in better immunotherapies, and why there are openings for startups like AIS. The company’s two scientific founders are Ryan Swanson (formerly of Amgen, ICOS, and Corixa, among other firms) and Michael Kornacker (formerly of Bristol-Myers Squibb). In a statement this morning, the company says it’s developing new protein-based immunotherapies with an in-house technology that’s able to bind to multiple targets in the immune synapse—where immune cells connect with one another—rather than a single one, like most approaches.
AIS says it’s able to impact these interactions with a single molecule, and either spur on or tamp down an immune response, meaning its approach might have use either for cancer or autoimmune diseases. The company does this by engineering specific types of ligands (signaling molecules) meant to bind to more than one target simultaneously.
AIS already has a measure of validation for its work. It’s developed a second technology meant to boost the targeting power and effectiveness of cell therapies, and cut a deal with CAR-T player Kite Pharma (NASDAQ: KITE) in October worth as much as $530 million. Now AIS got another $48 million to try to prove that it’s on to something.
“We believe this significant funding, along with our collective expertise, will enable us to discover and develop clinically meaningful and transformative therapies for patients,” Gold said in a statement.