Unfazed by the financial turmoil caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Edinburgh-based firm Macomics and University of Cambridge spinout Spirea have each closed seed rounds this week to finance the development of novel cancer immunotherapies and more precise forms of chemotherapy.
Macomics bagged €3.5M (£3.2M) in seed funding from the transatlantic VC firm Epidarex Capital and the Scottish Investment Bank. Meanwhile, Spirea raised an undisclosed amount in a round led by the recently launched UK accelerator Start Codon and Meltwind, an investment firm headed by Abcam founder Jonathan Milner.
Macomics is designing drugs that can control the behavior of macrophages, white blood cells that normally attack bacteria and viruses. In some cases, macrophages can get hijacked by tumors and become tumor-associated macrophages, which can promote cancer spread and suppress immune anti-cancer responses.
“High levels of tumor-associated macrophages correlate with poor survival in a variety of human solid tumors, such as breast, lung, and stomach cancers,” Robert Haigh, CEO of Macomics, told me. “Therefore targeting [these macrophages] is a very promising approach, and Macomics is focused on developing novel immunotherapeutics to do this.”
Macomics aims to start first-in-human trials in the next three to four years.
Epidarex’s investment in Macomics is part of a recent strategy to seek out innovation outside of the traditional UK biotech hubs of Cambridge, Oxford, and London. “Edinburgh and Scotland have always been associated with high-quality science and a strong startup culture. We see this going from strength to strength in the future,” Haigh told me.
Firmly based in the Cambridge biotech hub, Spirea aims to improve the precision of traditional cancer therapies such as chemotherapies, which are quite unspecific and can damage healthy cells. A more precise approach could save patients from nasty side effects and would make treatment more successful.
To achieve this, Spirea is developing engineered antibodies called antibody-drug conjugates, which are designed to recognize cancer cells and release their chemotherapy drug payload in a targeted manner. This idea has been explored by oncology companies such as the Swiss ADC Therapeutics and German Wilex Pharma for a while now, but it hasn’t developed to its full potential.
“There are currently eight antibody-drug conjugates on the market treating a variety of different cancers,” Myriam Ouberai, Spirea CEO, told me. But poorly constructed antibodies may release the drug off-target and cause severe side effects.
“Spirea’s technology improves the drug format so that a Spirea antibody-drug conjugate will still be effective, but with decreased toxic side-effects. The Spirea technology is also more flexible than current systems, which opens up the possibility of tailored treatments for particular groups of patients,” Ouberai noted.
With economic recessions imminent around the world thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, the biotech industry has undergone a dramatic shift towards respiratory disease prevention and treatment. Overall, though, oncology startups seem to have survived the crisis quite well.
“Many companies across the country will have experienced some disruption,” Haigh told me. “However they will have worked hard to side-step these and keep critical operations going as much as possible.”
Ouberai echoed the same sentiment: “There is still a lot of private funding available for exciting new ventures. Support from advisors, consultants, non-executive directors, and academics is as strong as ever and, with home-working, it might be that support is actually more available than usual.”
Macomics and Spirea aren’t the only European startups that got funding this week. The Spanish company Telum Therapeutics also took home €4.1M in equity funding that will fuel treatments for bacterial infections that are resistant to multiple antibiotics.
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