Health/Life Sciences

Juno co-founder launches bold new startup with Fred Hutch colleagues to deal with most cancers

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

A new cell therapy company is on the block, propelled by powerhouse scientific co-founders from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center with years of experience investigating how to harness the immune system to treat cancer.

Affini-T Therapeutics, which emerged Wednesday in a presentation at the J.P. Morgan Health Care Conference, is headquartered in Boston and has a research lab in Seattle. 

The company’s scientific co-founders are Philip Greenberg, Fred Hutch head of immunology, Thomas Schmitt, a research associate in his lab, and Hutch associate professor Aude Chapuis. Greenberg previously co-founded cell therapy company Juno Therapeutics, which was acquired by Celgene for more than $9 billion in 2018.

Co-founder Jak Knowles serves as Affini-T CEO and president. He was previously chief business officer of gene editing startup Metagenomi, which he co-founded. He was also VP of venture investments at Leaps by Bayer, the pharma giant’s investment arm, and he co-founded Exonics Therapeutics, which was acquired by Vertex Pharmaceuticals for $245 million.

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

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.   

The cancer cells are recognized by an engineered protein on the therapeutic cells called a T cell receptor. Affini-T boosts the response by adding another engineered protein, called a CD8 co-receptor. The company is also investigating ways to soup up the T cells by adding or taking out other genes.

The approach holds the promise for targeting a wider range of tumor types than more conventional CAR T cell therapies. CAR T cells can recognize only a limited number of protein targets, which must be on the surface of cells. They are approved for several types of blood cancer and a host of companies are researching ways to expand their patient pool.

TCR therapy can target a wider range of proteins, including ones active on the inside of the cell.

Affini-T is targeting two aberrant proteins that are found in many tumor cells and propel cancer growth, called KRAS and Mutant P53. The company aims to treat solid tumors.

“Greenberg really knows TCRs,” Marcela Maus, a cellular therapist at Mass General Hospital Cancer Center, who is not involved in Affini-T, told STAT News. GeekWire has reached out to Affini-T for comment.

Other companies are also investigating the TCR approach, including T-knife Therapeutics and Lion TCR, whose therapy for liver cancer is in early clinical trials.

Affini-T joins a growing list of Seattle area cell therapy operations with links to Juno.

Juno co-founder and Seattle Children’s Research Institute investigator Michael Jensen co-founded Umoja Biopharma which landed $210 million last summer. Former Juno CEO Hans Bishop launched Sana Biotechnology, which pulled in $587 million in its IPO last year; Juno veteran Steve Harr serves as CEO. Juno co-founders Rick Klausner, former global health director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Fred Hutch investigator Stan Riddell are co-founders of Lyell Immunopharma, which has operations in the Seattle area and went public in a $425 million IPO this summer.

Bristol Myers Squibb inherited Juno’s pipeline when it bought Celgene in 2019. The pharma giant oversaw the approval last year of Breyanzi, a CAR T cell therapy, and is now expanding in the Seattle area.

In addition to the three Fred Hutch investigators, Affini-T’s scientific advisory board includes Nobel Prize winner Jim Allison, chair of Immunology at University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and other immunotherapy luminaries, including Rafi Ahmed, director of the Vaccine Center at Emory University.

Investors listed on Affini-T’s website are Vida Ventures, Leaps by Bayer, the Humboldt Fund, Agent Capital, and Alexandria.

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