It’s the holy grail of cancer treatments: cancer therapeutics that use the immune system to destroy cancer cells. They are also challenging and costly to develop. But a new biotechnology company has learned from past successes and failures to take a diversified approach and has secured $47 million in venture backing from Third Rock Ventures.
The team behind Jounce Therapeutics in Cambridge, Massachusetts includes Dr. James Allison, the man whose research led to the clinical development of Yervoy, Bristol Myers-Squibb’s melanoma vaccine approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2011. The vaccine has added years onto the lives of melanoma patients. Allison is chair of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center Department of Immunology.
“With key recent advances in cancer immunotherapy, we have gained invaluable insights into how the immune system recognizes tumors and a better understanding of effective cancer immunotherapy discovery and development,” Allison said in a company statement.
The funding will help build Jounce’s product engine to develop biologics with a broad spectrum of targets, according to a company statement. It will utilize tumor immunobiology and antibody discovery.
Third Rock Ventures Partner Dr. Cary Pfeffer, is serving as interim CEO of Jounce. In an emailed response to questions he said: “Cancer immunotherapy can work by ramping up the body’s immune system, taking the “brakes” off the immune system and/or helping the immune system to better recognize a tumor. Jounce is pursuing all of these approaches.”
He would not be drawn to specifying any one type of cancer the company is targeting, but he did say: “We currently have a broad focus within oncology. We are also looking closely at addressing specific tumor micro-environments, which could have implications for treating multiple indications within cancer dependent on patients’ tumor type.”
A couple of companies have had some major success with cancer vaccine development in recent years. In 2010 Dendreon became the first company to get approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for its prostate cancer vaccine Provenge — designed to treat prostate cancer that has spread. Bristol Myers-Squibb secured FDA approval for its Yervoy in 2011 that has added years onto melanoma patients lives.
Cancer immunotherapy research began more than 100 years ago.Although the field has been punctuated by failures most recently Merck KGaA’s lung cancer vaccine licensed from US biotech company Oncothyreon, the pipeline of cancer immunotherapies has grown significantly, particularly with Big Pharma companies.
Venture capitalists and big pharma companies have demonstrated a growing interest in cancer immunotherapies, energized by the approvals of Yervoy and Provenge. Therapeutic cancer vaccines can take 14-15 years to develop and can carry a hefty price tag — something that has posed a challenge to getting reimbursement for Provenge, though its fortunes appear to have turned a corner.
About 535 companies plus partners are developing 933 cancer immunotherapy drugs, according to Research and Markets. On the other hand, there are 17 suspended drugs and the number of ceased drugs over the years amounts to 452.