The immuno-oncology startup Cytovation has raised €17.7M (NOK 180M) in one of Norway’s biggest Series A rounds in life sciences.
Historically, Norway’s biotech scene has not seen the kind of venture capital funding characteristic of health and biotech in the UK and US. However, Norwegian biotech is growing and has seen more successes than many perhaps recognize.
The list of milestone achievements that have come out of Norway’s biotech industry includes the development of Thermo Fisher’s Dynabeads technology at the University of Bergen, the radiopharmaceutical company Algeta, which was acquired by Bayer in 2014, and the vaccine-development firm Nykode, based in Oslo, which recently began testing a Covid-19 vaccine in phase I/II.
Now, Cytovation, a Bergen-based Norwegian immuno-oncology startup, has announced a Series A fundraising round of €17.7M (NOK 180M). This is the largest biotech Series A round the country has seen since 2005, when Algeta raised €23.5M to develop a radiopharmaceutical treatment for bone metastasis of prostate cancer.
Cytovation’s round was led by two firms, the recently-founded Norway-based venture capital firm Sandwater, and the Norwegian and Swiss investment company Canica. Sandwater in particular specifically focuses on funding Nordic companies, including a variety of health and sustainability firms.
The money will go towards developing a tumor immunotherapy peptide that targets the cell membranes of tumor cells. A cell’s plasma membrane changes in multiple ways when it becomes cancerous. One important change is a surplus of negative electrical charges; these charges play a role in suppressing T-cell responses against the tumor.
According to Lars Prestegarden, Cytovation’s CEO, the treatment generates small pores in cancer cell’s membranes, releasing inflammatory proteins and antigens in what the firm calls an ‘in situ vaccination’ effect. This alerts the immune system to attack the tumor.
“This is a new therapeutic strategy that activates both the innate and adaptive immune systems, culminating in antigen presenting cell activation and T-cell priming,” said Prestegarten.
Cytovation’s peptide drug is being advanced into phase II clinical trials on its own and in combination with the checkpoint inhibitor drug Keytruda (pembrolizumab). The combination trials will study the therapy’s effects in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma, triple negative breast cancer, and melanoma. Cytovation reported positive interim results from a phase I/II trial in September 2021 and expects more clinical data later in 2022.
The uncontrolled breaking down of tumor cells can result in an illness called tumor lysis syndrome, when bursting cancer cells release excess salts and nucleic acids into the bloodstream. According to Cytovation, its treatment avoids this problem.
“The treatment targets one tumor at a time, inducing a gradual, stepwise elimination process, without any sign of tumor lysis syndrome in preclinical studies or in the 18 patients treated so far in the clinical trial,” said Prestegarten.
Cover image via Elena Resko. Data visualization via Jon Smith.rnrn28 January 2022: Article updated to correct funding amount in title to €18M