One big problem with existing cancer therapies available today like chemotherapy and radiation is the collateral damage. While some medicine can completely kill cancer, it also may destroy healthy, normal cells in one’s body.
But Juno Therapeutics, a new Seattle startup that just raised a massive $120 million series A round, thinks it has a better solution — one that, if successful, could change the way we eliminate cancer from our bodies.
The company, a unique collaboration spun out of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Seattle Children’s Research Institute, held a press conference today to answer questions about its mission and goals.
“We hope the work done by this company will transform the way we treat many cancers and also alter, in a unique and positive way, the biotechnology community in Seattle,” said Dr. Larry Corey, Juno co-founder and president of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
In its most simple form, here’s the underlying science behind what Juno wants to do: Aimed at patients with advanced disease who have not had success with chemotherapy, radiation and transplants, Juno takes an individuals T-cells, which fight infection as well as cancers, out of their body.
From there, genetic engineering is used to make the T-cell recognize the cancer that’s specific to that person. Then, the T-cell goes back into the body and it can recognize a tumor, hopefully killing it.
“It’s very personalized therapy,” Corey said.
Dr. Michael Jensen, a founding scientist of Juno, offered a computer comparison to help understand the science.
“The T-cells are the hardware of the immune system,” he explained. “We are a bit like software engineers. We create apps for T-cells to make them do something they couldn’t naturally do.”
Jensen added that this is a “transformative moment in our efforts over decades to harness the power of the immune system to be an effective therapy for patients with cancer.”
About a dozen trial participants have been treated with this therapy and Juno says the outcomes are promising. With the first two patients, both were completely free of their acute lymphoblastic leukemia nine days after receiving therapy.
“This kind of clinical observation that we’re seeing is what really fueled our motivation to make Juno a reality and push this out at an accelerated pace,” Jensen said.
Juno’s therapies will initially focus on blood cancers like leukemia, acute and aggressive lymphomas and B-cell lymphomas. However, there are plans to treat solid-tumor cancers — lung and pancreatic cancer, for example — by as early as 2014.
There are also a couple other advantages to this method other than keeping healthy cells alive.
“Unlike drugs, which have a half life and disappear, these lymphocytes are self-renewing,” explained Juno founding scientist Dr. Phil Greenberg. “Not only can it kill a tumor, but it actually can replicate itself and make more of itself. T-cells can be programmed so that when it sees a target, it not only kills it, but it can make more of itself and go out and kill more targets. Drugs can’t do that.
And finally, it persists. It hangs around, and if there’s a tumor reoccurrence, those T-cells are there already to recognize it.”
As far as why Juno’s founders looked for private investment, it was simply a matter of bringing this therapy to a large number of patients sooner rather than later. Carey said that there is not enough support available to commercialize something like this from fundraising and government grants alone.
“We have realized that we must utilize capital markets to reach patients sooner with potential life-saving technologies,” Carey said. “Developing such unique technologies requires not only monetary support for clinical trials program, but also logistic support to create new distribution system for individualized therapies.”
Here’s Dr. Greenberg explaining the science behind Juno’s therapies and showing us some of the work being done inside Juno’s labs: