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Seagen vets land $4.4M for Univ. of Washington spinout using fresh approach for cancer vaccines

Abacus Bioscience CEO Alan Wahl (left) and chief scientific officer Che-Leung Law. (Abacus Photo)

A biotech startup spun out of the University of Washington and led by veterans of Seattle-area biotech giant Seagen has raised $4.4 million, part of an ongoing seed round.

The leaders of the startup, Abacus Bioscience, say they’ve landed on a new, potentially powerful approach to create vaccines to treat people with cancer.

Anti-tumor vaccines have been tested for decades and some are approved, but they have shown limited effectiveness.

“’Cancer vaccine’ was a very dirty term in the investment community for a long time,” said Che-Leung Law, Abacus chief scientific officer and co-founder. “Even today, people still have a lot of skepticism about the ‘cancer vaccine approach.’”

Abacus is taking a novel approach to targeting tumor antigens, molecules on the surface of cancer cells. Its experimental agents have shown potential to generate a strong immune response to such antigens, thereby prompting tumor killing, said Law.

Law and co-founder Alan Wahl, CEO, have faced skepticism before.

They were both early employees of Seattle-area biotech giant Seagen, previously called Seattle Genetics. The company was pioneering a new type of therapy called an antibody-drug conjugate, which delivers a toxin to cells via a linked antibody. Law said when he went to give presentations, “people would just look at us and tell us ‘you guys are crazy.’”

Seagen is now a $25 billion company with four approved drugs and its approach forms the basis of multiple other companies.

Law is hopeful that Abacus is on the cusp of another field-changing technology. The name Abacus is a play on “Ab”, shorthand for “antibody.”

Abacus’ approach is to link a tumor antigen to an antibody fragment that recognizes a molecule, called CD180, on key immune cells. The agent activates the immune cells, which orchestrate a powerful immune response against the antigen. The net effect is, ideally, an immune onslaught against the tumor.

The approach can also be used against viruses and was tested by the company in unpublished primate studies against Hepatitis B virus. The data showed strong antibody and T cell responses, which are both needed for a robust immune effect, said Wahl.

The early studies were performed in the lab of co-founder and company chairman Edward Clark, emeritus professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Washington. They were funded in part by a $400,000 small business grant from the U.S. government as well as grants from UW’s CoMotion and Washington state’s Life Sciences Discovery Fund.

“We had this idea a while ago,” said Wahl, who co-founded the company in 2015. “But over the years we generated really solid proof-of-concept data that this was going to work before we went forward and asked others for money to drive it forward.” The data were critical to sell a new approach to investors during the current lull in biotech financing, he said.

The debut of several successful immunotherapy approaches also shifted Law’s own view of the potential of cancer vaccines. These include immunotherapy drugs like the “checkpoint inhibitor” Keytruda; cell therapy approaches like CAR T cells; and data showing the effectiveness of antibody-drug conjugates combined with checkpoint inhibitors.

All of these approaches amplify or augment existing anti-tumor immunity. Since they work, it should be possible to build a highly effective cancer vaccine, reasoned Law.

Law was previously senior vice president of translational medicine at Harpoon Therapeutics, a San Francisco-based immunotherapy startup. Prior to that he was at Seagen for 16 years, most recently as senior director of preclinical research.

Wahl has served as a consultant to biopharma companies for the last seven years and was previously vice president of discovery at Ambrx and held research leadership roles at AbbVie, Biogen Idec, Trubion Pharmaceuticals, and Bristol Myers Squibb. At Seattle Genetics, he was senior director of molecular oncology and immunology.

Clark was also the co-founder of Genetic Systems, an early Seattle biotech company bought by Bristol Myers Squibb in 1986, and of Trubion, which was acquired for at least $96.8 million in 2010.

The other Abacus co-founders include Raj Dua, an executive at Vincerx Pharma who held leadership roles at Trubion and Seattle-area Alder Biopharmaceuticals, which was bought by Lundbeck for nearly $2 billion; and Craig Philips, president of Seattle biotech company Kineta and founding partner of Pack Ventures, a firm that funds companies connected to the UW, which participated in the funding round.

Abacus is in the process of signing a lease for lab space in Seattle and is hiring immunologists and other scientists.

The startup is currently generating agents against two tumor antigens, one found on a variety of solid tumor types and another on cervical and head and neck cancers. Researchers will test various agents in test tubes, cells and rodents before moving into primates. The company is also using new protein analysis and engineering tools, including DeepMind’s AlphaFold, to create its vaccines.

Abacus’ approach is similar to others that link antigens to a different antibody fragment, directed against a molecule called CD40. Abacus’ agents may yield a broader immune response with fewer side effects, said Law. CD40 is found on cells other than immune cells so agents directed against it can have toxicity, he said.

Washington Research Foundation is leading the funding round. In addition to Pack Ventures, participants are Alexandria Venture Investments, Sahsen and individual investors. 

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