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Seattle-based biotech startup Kineta today received a leg-up in its efforts to kill cancerous tumors using the immune system. Kineta announced an agreement with drug giant Pfizer that includes $15 million in upfront payments and the possibility of an additional $505 million down the line.

Like other immunotherapies, Kineta’s treatment uses the body’s natural defenses to attack tumors. By convincing tumor cells that they are infected with a virus, the therapy triggers the same virus-fighting RIG-I Pathway that targets the flu.

Kineta CEO Shawn Iadonato. (Kineta Photo)

“The most successful immune therapies have been checkpoint inhibitors, and they tend to work best for people who already have a pre-existing immune response to their tumor,” Kineta CEO Shawn Iadonato told Geekwire.

Here’s the problem: the majority of patients don’t naturally have this immune response. Kineta hopes that its therapy will trigger one and make checkpoint inhibitors effective for more patients.

Under the deal, Kineta receives funding and a share of future royalties, and Pfizer gets the exclusive rights to drugs and technology that Kineta develops. Kineta aims to bring a drug to early clinical development within two to three years.

Earlier this year, Kineta signed another multi-million dollar partnership to develop a pain medication that enlists an unlikely hero: snail venom. In April, it joined forces with Genentech to create a non-opioid treatment worth up to $359 million if the project hits certain milestones.

Kineta also partners with the biomedical charity Wellcome Trust to create a treatment for Lassa fever, a virus found in West Africa that kills an estimated 5,000 people annually.

“In the pharmaceutical industry, partnering is critical in order to bring a drug to market,” said Iadonato. “It just shows that our industry has moved away from an environment where all of the drugs are being developed from soup to nuts in pharmaceutical companies.”

Kineta employs 35 people in its office in Seattle’s South Lake Union area, where a fifth of the team is focused on immuno-oncology research. Business intelligence group CB Insights recently named Kineta one of its “Game Changing Startups” for 2019 for its non-opioid pain program.

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