Wednesday, December 18, 2013

2013 Financing of the Year Nominee: Juno Therapeutics

It's time for the IN VIVO Blog's Sixth Annual Deal of the Year! competition. This year we're once again presenting awards in three categories to highlight the most interesting and creative deal making solutions of the year. The categories are: M&A of the Year, Alliance of the Year, and Financing of the Year. We'll supply the nominations (about a half dozen in each category throughout over the next week or so) and you, the voting public, will decide the winners (by voting early and often, commencing once we've announced all the nominees). Strap yourselves in, it's The Race for the Roger™.

With a name connoting royalty and godliness, it’s no wonder Juno Therapeutics received one of the year’s richest rounds of funding. And although its namesake’s existence was only in the minds of her ancient followers, the ambitious start-up’s $120 million Series A funding was no myth. Launched in December, the Seattle-based company instantly became a major player in the rapidly evolving cancer immunotherapy sector.

Juno unites researchers from three different institutions: Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center and the Seattle Children’s Research Institute in Seattle, and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Prior to the deal creating Juno, MSKCC’s closely watched chimeric antigen receptor T cell program was conspicuously un-partnered, especially after the cancer center revealed in March that it had induced a complete response – total remission – in a handful of patients; at December’s American Society of Hematology meeting in New Orleans, it unveiled further data showing full remission in 15 out of 17 patients treated with its immunotherapy.

That data has researchers ecstatic, and persuaded investors to fund Juno’s clinical research. The company uses autologous cell therapies, in which a patient’s own immune cells are removed from the body, genetically modified, and re-infused into the body so that they target tumor cells. The Hutch had a similar CART program underway, as well as a high-affinity T cell receptor program that aims for specific proteins inside tumor cells. Investor and board member Robert Nelsen of ARCH Venture Partners told us that Juno plans to begin no fewer than 13 trials by the end of 2014, in a variety of cancers. (ARCH invested alongside the Alaska Permanent Fund, a diversified, state-operated group.)

Juno is also notable because it unites cancer centers sometimes seen as rivals; Nelsen said they’ll essentially fight it out scientifically in pursuit of the best treatments. “Everyone has the big goal in mind,” he said. “We’ll run parallel programs and let the data decide. The scientists are perfectly willing to throw competing programs in, and see which ones are better.” Others are competing too. Novartis struck a deal for the University of Pennsylvania professor Carl June’s well-regarded CART program in August 2012, bypassing VCs altogether and taking rights for an undisclosed upfront payment and future milestones; at ASH, the pharma released data showing full remission in 19 of 22 patients.

Juno is well-positioned to capitalize on multiple trends. Barriers are falling in the broader area of genetic modification of cells using viral vectors, the field of gene therapy; the European approval of uniQure’s Glybera (alipogene tiparvovec) last year led to a spate of fundings in 2013. And BMS’s antibody Yervoy (ipilimumab) for melanoma, a cancer immunotherapy that doesn’t require genetic tweaking, is one of the year’s success stories; analysts believe sales will clear $1 billion this year.

Researchers don't talk about curative treatments lightly, but the "C" word has been tossed around when discussing Juno's and June's techniques. If it's too early to say Juno has achieved that goal, there's still time for it to claim a smaller victory in 2013, if only you'll consider it for the Roger in our Financings category.

Thanks to Flickr user Richard Mortel for bringing his camera to the Vatican; we've reproduced his photo under Creative Commons license.

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