This Cancer Immunotherapy Attacks the Sugar Coat of Tumor Cells

The Portuguese company CellmAbs is developing cancer immunotherapies that prevent tumor cells from evading the immune system by hitting sugar molecules on their surface.

cellmabs lisbon portugal cancer

Mission: To develop drugs that bind with a type of sugar molecules only found on the surface of cancer cells called aberrant glycans. Some of these aberrant glycans are able to suppress immune cells that would normally kill tumor cells, so blocking these molecules could let the immune system regain the ability to attack the cancer.

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A promising class of immunotherapy drugs to treat solid tumors is checkpoint inhibitors, which stop cancer cells from evading the immune system. However, only a minority of cancer patients respond to checkpoint inhibitors, and many experience side effects because the targets of the drugs are also needed for normal immune functions in the body.

It is mandatory that we find new approaches and effective strategies to treat solid tumors,” Nuno Prego Ramos, CEO of CellmAbs, told me.

CellmAbs was spun out of Nova University, Lisbon, last year, and is one of a small number of companies in the glyco-immuno-oncology field that are investigating glycans as a brand new target for cancer immunotherapies. 

CellmAbs’ lead candidate is an antibody drug designed to block aberrant glycans on cancer cells. Blocking these aberrant glycans could unshackle the immune system and let it attack the cancer. In addition, since these aberrant glycans are only found on the surface of tumor cells, the drug’s effects are limited to just tumor cells, avoiding the side effects seen in checkpoint inhibitors. 

Another two candidates in development by CellmAbs are a CAR T-cell immunotherapy and antibody-drug conjugate drug targeting aberrant glycans. 

To fund the preclinical development of its drugs, CellmAbs raised €1.5M in November last year in the largest Portuguese immuno-oncology seed round ever seen. The company aims to reach phase I for the treatment of a wide range of solid tumors with its lead candidate drug in 2021.

cellmabs cancer immunotherapy

What we think:

While current immunotherapies for cancer such as CAR T-cell immunotherapy and checkpoint inhibitors have had impressive results in some cancer patients, other patients do not respond. By targeting sugar molecules instead of protein molecules, CellmAbs’ treatment could therefore open up immunotherapy to more patients.

There are very few companies in the glyco-immuno-oncology field. Two examples are Tacalyx and Palleon Pharmaceuticals, which are currently at the preclinical stage. According to Ramos, CellmAbs is targeting a different glycan to the other companies and its drugs are designed to better block its glycan target.

Glyco-immuno-oncology is a relatively young field, with many challenges. For example, making antibodies against glycans is harder than against proteins. “The human body is composed of an infinity of different types of sugars and the development process is much more challenging,” Ramos told me. “It requires a specific know-how and expertise as well as a deep understanding of oncobiology.” 

The field is becoming a hot topic in cancer immunotherapy, and big pharma companies are beginning to show big interest. For example, Palleon Pharmaceuticals included in its Series A investors the venture arms of Pfizer and Takeda.

Cancer is a complex disease that needs to be addressed from multiple perspectives,” Ramos said. “There is an enormous potential to develop far better treatments but also to create synergies with already existing treatments.


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