Three leading cancer-research centres in the US have secured backing of US$120 million for Juno Therapeutics, a biotechnology start-up focused on novel immmunotherapies that could have a transformative impact in oncology.

The founding scientists come from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (Fred Hutch), the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) and Seattle Children’s Research Institute.

Co-founders include Hans Bishop, chief executive officer of Juno Therapeutics as well as former executive vice president and chief operating officer of Dendreon; Dr Larry Corey, president and director of Fred Hutch; Dr Richard Klausner, former director of the National Cancer Institute; and Robert Nelsen, co-founder and a managing director of ARCH Venture Partners.

Venture capital firm ARCH Venture Partners is one of the initial investors in the new company, along with Alaska Permanent Fund, through a partnership managed by Crestline Investors. According to its founders, Juno is “one of the largest Series A biotech start-ups in history”.

Reprogramming T-cells

The company’s scientific strategy involves reprogramming T lymphocytes to recognise cancer cells and enable a precise immunologic response to cancer cells. This approach could lead to long-term remissions as well as reducing or eliminating the need for surgery, radiation and chemotherapy in cancer patients, Juno says.

“The tumour regressions we are seeing across our Phase I trials at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, Fred Hutch and Seattle Children’s Research Institute are unprecedented,” commented Dr Michael Jensen, director of the Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research at Seattle Children’s Research Institute and a scientific co-founder of Juno.

“I believe this is a transformative therapeutic platform for patients young and old that has the potential to save lives,” Dr Jensen added.

Complementary platforms

Juno will build on breakthroughs in the design of novel immunotherapies to develop two complementary platforms: chimeric antigen receptors (CARs) and T-cell receptors (TCRs).

The CAR technology is designed to target antigens expressed on the surface of cancer cells. Meanwhile, the high-affinity TCR technology can detect changes to intracellular proteins present in tumour cells.

These treatments can reduce the longer-term toxicities associated with current chemotherapeutics and have potential “for curative therapy even for patients with widespread disease”, Juno states.

Multiple candidates

The aim is to develop multiple product candidates in select haematological and solid-tumour cancers for licensing by the US Food and Drug Administration.

Each of these candidates has the potential to treat a variety of high-risk cancers, Juno noted.