Health/Life Sciences

Fred Hutch spinout Affini-T Therapeutics lands $175M for cell therapies to deal with strong tumors

From left: Affini-T scientific co-founders and Fred Hutch investigators Philip Greenberg, Aude Chapuis, and Thomas Schmitt. (Fred Hutch Photos)

New funding: Affini-T Therapeutics, a cell therapy company spun out of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center that aims to treat solid tumors, raised $175 million in initial financing. Fred Hutch invested in the startup, the first time the Seattle institution has directly backed a company.

The tech: Affini-T is developing cancer treatments using a strategy called T cell receptor (TCR) cancer immunotherapy. The method involves engineering immune T cells to recognize tumor cells and infusing them into the patient. After recognizing the tumor cells, the engineered T cells mount a destructive immune response against them. “I believe we have a therapy now that really has a huge likelihood of being successful,” co-founder Philip Greenberg, Fred Hutch head of immunology, told GeekWire.

Jak Knowles, Affini-T Therapeutics CEO. (Affini-T Photo)

Go deeper: Affini-T’s TCR therapy recognizes cancer-promoting targets on the inside of cells. Its lead program targets a mutant version of KRAS often present in highly deadly cancers like colorectal and pancreatic cancer. The company did not comment on a timeline for development of the therapy, but it is also pursuing other targets. Building a TCR platform for several key cancer drivers was a major appeal for building the company, said Affini-T CEO and president Jak Knowles. “We realized quickly that there was an opportunity here to build something a lot bigger than one T cell receptor to KRAS,” he said.

The people: Affini-T is founded on technology developed by Greenberg and two other Hutch investigators, co-founders Thomas Schmitt and Aude Chapuis. Greenberg previously co-founded cell therapy company Juno Therapeutics, which was acquired by Celgene for more than $9 billion in 2018.

Knowles was previously vice president of venture investments at Leaps by Bayer. The pharma giant’s investment arm co-led the funding round, along with Vida Ventures, whose managing director Arjun Goyal is also a co-founder. Knowles was earlier CEO of Exonics Therapeutics, which was acquired by Vertex Pharmaceuticals for $245 million.

Why it’s different: Other companies developing TCR therapies, such as Adaptimmune Therapeutics and Immatics, each have their own way of souping up therapeutic cells to be more effective. Affini-T’s tricks include Fred Hutch technology that makes cells live longer, enabling them to persist in the body to kill tumors. The company also boosts the anti-tumor response through addition of a molecule called CD8 to cells. Meanwhile, CRISPR gene editing technology licensed from other sources enhances the platform capabilities.

Juno Therapeutics built its success on a different type of cell therapy, CAR T cells. Its lead product is now Breyanzi, marketed by Bristol Myers Squibb, which acquired Celgene. Breyanzi and CAR T cell products made by other companies are approved for several types of blood cancers, and are under development for solid tumors.

TCR therapy is experimental but it has the potential for tackling a wider variety of tumor targets and cancer types.

Hiring: The company now has 57 employees at its headquarters in Boston and its labs on the Seattle waterfront. “​We are recruiting for wherever the talent is,” said Knowles. Cell manufacturing is currently taking place at Fred Hutch, but ultimately the company plans to build out its own facility.

Seattle biotech clout: Affini-T joins the ranks of cell therapy companies with operations in the Seattle area that have pulled in massive early funding rounds. Sana Biotechnology raised more than $700 million within two years of launching, Umoja Biopharma recently raised $263 million in Series A and B rounds, and GentiBio raised $157 million in a Series A round. “There’s a lot of talent in Seattle, and the success of Juno as well as some other local Seattle companies really proves that it’s a vibrant ecosystem for for cell therapy,” said Knowles.

Other investors: Humboldt Fund, The Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, Catalio Capital Management, Agent Capital, Alexandria Venture Investments and Erasca Ventures. Fred Hutch received equity in return for its intellectual property, in addition to its direct investment.

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