Aktis Oncology, a Massachusetts startup developing targeted radiation drugs for cancer, has raised $84 million in new funds from Merck & Co’s venture arm and other investors. Merck joins Novartis and Bristol Myers Squibb in betting on the biotechnology company, which debuted publicly last year.
Targeted radiation drugs, or radiopharmaceuticals, are gaining traction with several regulatory approvals and new investments in recent years. The treatments are designed to deliver radioactive isotopes directly to tumors cells via a targeting molecule. The approach borrows from the long history of using radiation to treat cancer, but adapted to better spare healthy tissue. Targeted delivery of radiation has historical roots, too, such as with using radioactive iodine to treat types of thyroid cancer.
Aktis is developing radiopharmaceuticals to treat common cancers like those affecting the breast, lungs, bladder and gastrointestinal tract. Its work is still early, but is focused on a type of radiopharmaceutical which it dubs a “miniprotein conjugate.”
While radiopharmaceuticals hold advantages, they also introduce new complexity in manufacturing as they involve multiple components and require a supply of radioactive isotopes. However, in an email to BioPharma Dive, Aktis president and CEO Matthew Roden suggested its miniproteins might be easier to produce and highlighted contracts the company recently signed with three radioisotope manufacturers for supply of Actinium-225.
Bristol Myers and Novartis, both top cancer drugmakers, participated in Aktis’ initial Series A round of $72 million in March 2021, along with MPM Capital, EcoR1 Capital and Vida Ventures.
For Novartis, the Series A investment added to its presence in the radiopharmaceutical field. Over the past five years, Novartis bought two radiopharmaceutical players, Endocyte and Advanced Accelerator Applications, for a combined $6 billion. The deals led to approved medicines for advanced prostate cancer and certain digestive tract cancers.
In addition to its investment, Bristol Myers has some personal ties to Aktis. Roden and Aktis’ head of lead discovery Daša Lipovšek both previously worked at the pharma company. Roden was formerly a senior vice president there, while Lipovšek was a scientific director for selection technologies and protein engineering.
In a statement Thursday, Roden said the new funding will “fuel the advancement” of its miniprotein programs into the clinic, adding by email that that milestone could come by 2024 or potentially sooner.