Many Cytokine Space Parallels Drawn by Asher Bio’s Series B

Asher Bio CEO Craig Gibbs_Asher Bio

Asher Bio Chief Executive Officer, Craig Gibbs, Ph.D/Courtesy Asher Bio. 

Since entering the biotech arena five months ago with a $55 million funding round to develop a suite of immunotherapies that target specific cell types with cytokines, Asher Biotherapeutics has raised another $108 million in an oversubscribed Series B financing round.

New investors Janus Henderson and biotech blue-chipper RA Capital Management were brought on board to join lead investor Wellington Management Company LLP and other existing investors.

“We are pleased to announce this Series B financing and we are tremendously grateful to our new and existing investors for their support and commitment to our goal of delivering a new class of biotherapeutics, with superior selectivity and broad applicability across multiple tumor types, as well as infectious and autoimmune diseases,” said Asher Bio Chief Executive Officer, Craig Gibbs, Ph.D.

This series B revenue number mirrors what California-based engineered cytokine therapeutics company Synthekine received in June to support clinical studies to proof-of-concept for selective IL-2 partial agonists, STK-012, and orthogonal IL-2 and CD-19 CAR-T systems, STK-009 and SYNCAR-001. Synthekine started two years ago and publicly launched in September 2020 with $82 million in funding to advance a pipeline of engineered cytokine therapeutics optimized for cancer and autoimmune diseases.

Asher Bio also began two years ago and raised $55 million in a Series A financing round this March to take forward a series of engineered cytokines that aim to eliminate both the toxicities and the loss of efficacy in immunotherapy.

Like Asher Bio, which is developing immunotherapies for cancer, autoimmune, and infectious diseases, Synthekine is attempting to rewrite the cytokine landscape with an interleukin-2 (IL-2) approach.

In another interesting parallel, Janus Henderson co-led Synthekine's financing with the support of RA Capital Management and others, with the investors readily dipping into their pockets, enticed by the new set of encouraging statistics.

Biotech companies in the cytokine space are clearly attracting investors. There have long been hopes that cytokines could be used to treat cancer, but their effectiveness has been limited due to the adverse effects they can cause in many types of cells. Their interactions with multiple cell types are the main hurdle.

Asher Bio designs immune therapies that specifically target immune cells. To construct its treatments, it uses cis-targeting, a method of protein engineering.

Cancer and autoimmune disorders are focal points for Synthekine. In the event Synthekine decides to formalize partnerships, it will look for Big Pharmas that have had experience with cytokine biology.

Paris-based Sanofi's acquisition of San Diego-based Synthorx perfectly fits the bill, as does Bristol Myers Squibb’s partnership with Nektar Therapeutics’ pegylated interleukin-2 drug NKTR-214 (bempegaldesleukin).

BMS has been working with Nektar on combination cancer therapies since 2018, expanding the multibillion-dollar alliance early last year. BMS paid $1.85 billion up front to license bempegaldesleukin, while Sanofi shelled out $2.5 billion for Synthorx.

Other Big Pharmas in the IL-2 space include Amgen and Merck. In February, Merck struck a $1.9 billion deal to buy Pandion, gaining control of a pipeline of immune modulators. Pandion went public last year with $135 million funding to develop a pipeline led by an engineered IL-2 mutein fused to a protein backbone.

Amgen's IL-2 mutein, efavaleukin alfa (formerly known as AMG 592) on the other hand, boosts the number and function of T regulatory cells, which are key modulators of the immune system. T regulatory axis dysfunction is common in many autoimmune diseases. Amgen anticipates sharing Phase Ib data in lupus towards the end of the year.

As does Asher Bio, which has not yet published any of its research. The company has more IL-2 drugs in the pipeline. Two additional programs have shown preclinical proof of concept. In the third quarter of next year, the company is expected to submit an investigational new drug application for its lead program, utilizing funding from the Series B financing.

Meanwhile, another Big Pharma is looking at different ways of homing in on tumors. Pfizer is using PF-07209960 to develop an interleukin 15 (IL15) activator solid tumors drug.

Asher Bio was founded by Ivana Djuretic and Andy Yeung, who worked in cancer immunology and protein engineering at Pfizer. The duo left their jobs in 2019 to start the company.

Gibbs' leadership team currently includes Chief Scientific Officer Ivana Djuretic and Chief Technology Officer Andy Yeung. Djuretic was head of cytokine biology at Pfizer's cancer immunology discovery unit.

Could there be a homecoming of sorts in the works here?

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