- Normunity, a Boston-based biotechnology startup co-founded by cancer immunotherapy pioneer Lieping Chen, emerged from stealth on Tuesday with $65 million in funding and a close alliance with the immunologist’s lab at Yale University’s School of Medicine.
- The startup aims to develop antibody drugs it’s calling “immune normalizers,” which are meant to counter the ways cancers evade the immune system and treat “cold” tumors immunotherapies can’t reach. Chen, in an interview, said all of Normunity’s prospects aim at previously unknown drug targets.
- Normunity is run by Rachel Humphrey, a former Bristol Myers Squibb and AstraZeneca executive closely involved in the development of the immunotherapies Opdivo and Imfinzi. Canaan Ventures led its financing round, which was also supported by Sanofi’s venture arm, Taiho Ventures and Osage University Partners.
Chen was credited with being the first to discover the protein PD-L1 as well as its role as a “brake” cancers use to stop tumor-fighting T cells in their tracks. His findings were a crucial contributor to research that led to checkpoint inhibitors like Merck & Co.’s Keytruda and Bristol Myers’ Opdivo, which block a partner protein on T cells, PD-1, and are now used to treat dozens of cancers.
Chen is now trying to make his mark on the next wave of cancer immunotherapies, building on efforts by biopharmaceutical companies to improve the immune-boosting drugs. That search has so far led to more failures than successes, including a setback at one of the companies Chen previously founded known as NextCure.
But Chen and Humphrey say Normunity can stand out because it’s focused on uncovering and drugging mechanisms that keep immunotherapies from reaching a large portion of tumors.
“The progress has been limited, because it's a lot more of ‘same,’ all based on what we learned in the first round [of immunotherapy],” Humphrey said. “Here we’re doing something completely different.”
Their conviction is based on a drug discovery engine at Chen’s lab at Yale that’s serving as a feeder for Normunity. Chen’s team claims they can tease apart the complex interactions between tumors and the immune system to find targets that others haven’t. Those targets help tumors form a protective shield. Blocking them is meant to break that barrier, so those tumors are no longer “immunologically cold” and can be infiltrated by immune cells, according to Chen.
“These are not simple platforms. We’ve been building this technology for more than 10 years now,” Chen said. “This approach has not been taken by others.”
Scientists at the biotech startup will then use the findings from Chen’s lab to design drugs that can hit those targets and “make the immune system [function] as normal as possible,” Chen said.
Humphrey said Normunity scientists are evaluating more than five targets that Chen’s lab has found. Though few details were disclosed, Normunity’s lead program is an antibody aimed at an enzyme that’s overexpressed in a variety of cancers and keeps T cells out of tumors. Other candidates are similarly aimed at helping the immune system get to cold tumors, which represent the majority of all cancers, she said.
Their work is in early stages. According to Humphrey, the $65 million round should help Normunity get the first two candidates into clinical testing, but it’s unclear when.
“We’ll have more to talk about in the coming year,” she said.