Issue Date: December 9, 2013
Juno Makes A Grand Entrance
Juno Therapeutics, a Seattle-based company focused on cancer immunotherapy, has debuted with a whopping $120 million in financing, one of the biggest-ever initial funding rounds for a biotech firm. Backed by Arch Venture Partners and the Alaska Permanent Fund, the company brings together technology developed at previously rival academic institutions to compete in a hot area of drug development.
With technology from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and Seattle Children’s Research Institute,Juno is developing products based on two platforms. Both take advantage of the potential for T cells, a type of white blood cell, to be coaxed into attacking cancer.
The more advanced platform is chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell technology. It involves genetically engineering T cells pulled out of a cancer patient’s blood. Juno alters the T cells to bind to a cancer-specific antigen—a protein that prompts an immune response—and then infuses them back into the patient so they can fight the disease.
The hefty investment in Juno was prompted by early data for a CAR-based immunotherapy targeting CD-19, a protein found on the surface of blood cancer cells. Sloan-Kettering clinicians saw a complete molecular response, meaning the cancer completely abated after treatment with CAR-altered T cells, in 15 of 18 patients with advanced acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
More work is needed to show that the response is sustainable. But Juno is already developing “a wide range of different antigens for a wide range of different cancers and expects to be in the clinic next year” with those products, CEO Hans Bishop says.
The concept of cancer immunotherapy has been around since the 1980s, but impressive late-stage data on treatments from Bristol-Myers Squibb and Merck & Co. have ignited interest in the field. The investment firm Leerink Swann projects that sales of cancer immunotherapies will top $29 billion annually by 2025.
Juno is not alone in aggressively pursuing immunotherapies with CAR technology. Other players include Novartis, through a partnership with the University of Pennsylvania, and Celgene, through pacts with Bluebird Bio and Baylor College of Medicine.
- Chemical & Engineering News
- ISSN 0009-2347
- Copyright © American Chemical Society