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Jump-starting immunotherapies with Juno
NEW YORK—A trio of research cancer juggernauts joined forces the first week of December to establish a new biotechnology company, Juno Therapeutics Inc. Launched by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) and pediatric partner Seattle Children’s Research Institute, Juno Therapeutics will be dedicated to advancing novel immunotherapies for cancer. The company is launching with a $120 million initial investment—one of the largest Series A biotech startup financings in history—with investors such as ARCH Venture Partners and the Alaska Permanent Fund, through a partnership managed by Crestline Investors. Hans Bishop, who has served on the management teams of companies such as Bayer HealthCare Pharmaceuticals and Dendreon, will head Seattle-based Juno as its CEO.
“Juno presents a compelling opportunity to partner with a sophisticated management team and group of world-class research institutions who share our long-term perspective,” Michael Burns, executive director of Alaska Permanent Fund, said in a press release. “At a time when public financing for clinical development has largely dried up, the private-sector model is critical to allowing ventures like Juno to push the frontiers of research.”
“The longtime research investment that centers like the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Memorial Sloan-Kettering have had in tumor immunology has allowed us to progress to where we feel we can genetically engineer smart T cells to eradicate malignant cancer cells and provide meaningful clinical remissions. Joining together allows us to bring some of the world’s most accomplished immunotherapy researchers to catalyze this field,” Dr. Larry Corey, president and director of Fred Hutchinson, commented in a statement.
Juno will focus on harnessing the immune system by reprogramming T lymphocytes, also known as T cells, which serve as one of the body’s natural defenses against infection. The technology Juno will bring to bear reprograms these cells to recognize cancer cells and eradicate them and, by utilizing synthetic receptors and/or altered natural antigen receptors, this reprogramming technology can engender a potent anti-tumor response from a patient’s own immune system. The company’s work with T cells—which is based on decades of work from its founding institutions—has demonstrated evidence of complete remission in different forms of advanced cancer, and will be expanded to target a variety of tumor types, including solid and hematologic tumors.
Within the field of immunotherapies, Juno will work to design immunotherapies in two platforms: chimeric antigen receptors and T-cell receptors. The chimeric antigen receptors (CAR) technology modifies T cells obtained from cancer patients to recognize tumor cells and activate T cells, and Juno notes on its website that “data from clinical trials have demonstrated the capacity of CAR-modified T cells to eradicate treatment-resistant cancers even when patients had large tumor burden.” The T-cell receptors technology modifies T cells with high-affinity T-cell receptors with sequences that bind more tightly to a target antigen, which can enable the targeting of tumor proteins inside the cell.
“Based on the significant anti-tumor activity seen with this T-cell engineering technology, we are pursuing an aggressive and comprehensive clinical development plan to accelerate achievement of regulatory requirements and make this therapy available to cancer patients in the shortest period of time possible,” Dr. José Baselga, physician-in- chief at MSKCC, noted in a statement.
Dr. Michael Jensen, director of the Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research at Seattle Children’s and a scientific co-founder of Juno, added that “The tumor regressions we are seeing across our Phase 1 trials at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, Fred Hutch and Seattle Children’s Research Institute are unprecedented.”
Immunotherapies are of growing interest in the field of oncology for a variety of reasons. Since cancer’s aberrant, unchecked growth and metastasis is a result of cancer cells’ ability to “hide” from the immune system—generally by releasing various antigens—retraining the system to recognize and attack cancerous cells could provide a lasting offense against tumors. In addition, immunotherapies offer the chance for an effective treatment that avoids the detrimental side effects of standard cancer treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy.