Immuneering CEO Aims to Identify 90 Drug Programs Within Five Years

Drug Development

In drug development, assets are often aimed at a specific disease target or pathway, similar to a bullet fired from a gun. The idea of going after one precise target though, may not be the best solution for treating the totality of diseases, though. What may be more effective in the long run, is hitting a disease along multiple target lines.  That’s the idea at Cambridge, Mass.-based Immuneering.

The company’s proprietary Disease Cancelling Technology is aimed at developing medicines that halt or reverse disease signals across multiple relevant genes. Ben Zeskind, chief executive officer of Immuneering, told BioSpace in an interview that the bullet metaphor, meaning a drug aimed at a specific target, was not always the best option for treating a disease, particularly one like cancer that could have multiple disease sources. Rather, Zeskind said the most effective drugs were more like noise-canceling headsets as opposed to being a bullet. This is where drug programs like Immuneering’s Disease Cancelling Technology can play an important role, Zeskind said.

Zeskind spoke with BioSpace following the annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco. Immuneering attended the event to showcase its platform, as well as take the opportunity to meet with investors and potential partners. At the conference, Zeskind said the company had a lot of “great meetings” with pharma companies. Immuneering pointed to the development and validation of its Disease Cancelling Technology, which has drawn the interest of companies across the industry.

Immuneering’s Disease Cancelling Technology uses bioinformatics and allows the company to go after aspects of disease that aren’t suited for traditional medicines, Zeskind said. In particular, the company is tackling cancer cachexia, the final cause of one-third of all cancer deaths, he noted. Immuneering though, is “rapidly moving” toward the filing of an Investigational New Drug Application that would allow the company to test its cancer cachexia asset in the clinic, Zeskind said. Cancer cachexia is a syndrome characterized by a deterioration of muscle in terminally ill patients, as well as anorexia and anemia. In these patients, the muscles in the body, such as the lungs and heart, become too weak to perform, which ultimately leads to the death of the patient. So far, there are no approved treatments in the United States for this syndrome.

To support the potential IND, as well as other discovery efforts, Immuneering recently secured $20 million in a Series A funding round. Not only does the infusion of funds show the strength of the company, Zeskind pointed to the recent hiring spree of executives the company has pulled off. In December, the company tapped Scott Barrett, the former global medical affairs lead for Targeted Therapeutics at Incyte Pharmaceuticals, as its new chief medical officer. Barrett also held roles in oncology at Eisai Pharmaceuticals and Johnson& Johnson before joining Immuneering. And this month, Immuneering brought on Howard L. Kaufman to head up its research and development efforts. Kaufman has more than 25 years of experience in oncology and tumor immunology. He most recently served as chief medical officer at Replimune Group, Inc. Zeskind said the company bolstered its leadership team as it prepares its next stage of growth.

Under traditional drug discovery efforts, Zeskind said the screening for targets in a tumor is not going to detect a drug that will address the wasting away associated with cancer cachexia. He said the traditional methods focused on tumor cells aren’t going to find a drug that “disrupts the complex interaction” between the tumor and the body’s muscles. If you can disrupt that interaction, Zeskind said you could block cachexia and prevent the deaths of untold numbers of cancer patients. All the data the company has collected over the past several years support the filing of an IND, Zeskind said.

In addition to the cancer cachexia program, Immuneering is also developing other programs for diseases, such as metastasis, and is looking forward to moving them into the clinic as well, Zeskind said. While Zeskind has a series of its programs still in the computational phase, over the next five years, he envisions Immuneering moving up to 90 different programs into the clinic, the majority of which are in oncology. Other areas of research the company is involved with include next-generation KRAS inhibition, and the RAF-MEK pathway. As Immuneering nears its goal of driving forward 90 programs, Zeskind said the company will look to scale up to meet the rising demands such growth requires. 

“Right now, we’re really excited about the opportunities we see in oncology,” Zeskind said.

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