Backed by big-name investors, well-known executives and millions of dollars, a freshly launched biotechnology company hopes to turn research from a California lab into new cancer therapies.
Named TORL BioTherapeutics, the company is built around discoveries from the lab of its scientific cofounder, Dennis Slamon, who is currently chief of hematology and oncology in the University of California, Los Angeles Department of Medicine. Previously, Slamon helped identify a key protein, “HER2,” involved in some breast cancers. His team was then integral to the clinical research that led to groundbreaking medicine Herceptin.
Slamon’s lab also discovered ties between certain breast cancers and enzymes known as CDK4 and CDK6, and work there ultimately led to the development of drugs like Pfizer’s Ibrance and Novartis’ Kisqali.
At TORL, the initial focus will be on two other proteins, Claudin 6 and Claudin 18.2, which have been increasingly attractive to cancer drugmakers. Amgen, Astellas and the messenger RNA specialist BioNTech have each run or are running clinical trials for drugs targeting Claudin 6. Those three, along with at least a dozen more biotechs, have also evaluated therapies directed at Claudin 18.2.
Though only just launched, TORL, too, has a pair of experimental therapies in early-stage testing against solid tumors, and expects to bring two to three more compounds into the clinic within the next year. The company said it aims to advance one to two new compounds annually.
The clinical-stage drugs TORL already has are both ADCs, or antibody drug conjugates, a type of medicine that attaches a toxic payload to an antibody designed to seek out specific proteins found on cancer cells. The list of approved ADCs has substantially grown in recent years, leading to more investment in this type of research from large pharmaceutical companies. Just last month, Pfizer agreed to buy the ADC specialist Seagen for $43 billion.
TORL has garnered big pharma interest as well, with one of its backers being Bristol Myers Squibb. The company officially launched Thursday, announcing $158 million from a now-complete Series B funding round that was led by Goldman Sachs Asset Management and saw participation from Cowen Healthcare Investments, Vertex Ventures HC and Alexandria Venture Investments, among others.
This financing is notable considering how a market downturn over the past year and a half has made raising money far more difficult for young drug companies. Data from Silicon Valley Bank show that while 356 biotechs completed Series A funding rounds between mid-2020 and the end of 2021, just 102 had Series B raises in 2022.
“TORL represents a unique model for company formation,” said Amit Sinha, head of life sciences investing for Goldman Sachs Asset Management, in a statement. Sinha added that the biotech’s relationship with Slamon’s lab will allow it to “leverage decades of scientific expertise and deep research capabilities while avoiding the significant costs and risks associated with early-stage discovery."
TORL notes how, since its inception in 2018, the company has, with less than $50 million at its disposal, ushered three internally developed programs into the clinic and received clearance from the Food and Drug Administration to start human testing of two more.
Both Slamon and Sinha will sit on TORL’s board of directors, as will the company’s fellow cofounders Neil O’Brien, David Licata and Mark Attanasio, a managing partner at Crescent Capital Group. Licata will also serve as TORL’s CEO.
Rounding out the board are Lynn Seely, CEO of the cell therapy biotech Lyell Immunopharma, and Mark Alles, former CEO of Celgene, who will serve as chairman.
In addition to ADCs, TORL says it’s also developing a pipeline of new monoclonal antibodies to treat various cancers.