Big European venture capital firms Jeito, Forbion, and Inkef Capital have teamed up to propel the local radiopharmaceutical scene by investing €80M in the Belgian firm Precirix.
Europe has a long history of expertise in the development of radiopharmaceutical drugs. One of the pioneers in the field was Advanced Accelerator Applications (AAA) in France. AAA — now part of Novartis — brought to market one of the best-known radiopharmaceutical drugs, Lutathera, for the treatment of types of neuroendocrine tumors in 2018.
“[Radiopharmaceuticals] have been around for many decades,” said Ruth Devenyns, CEO of the Belgian radiopharmaceutical firm Precirix. “There was quite a bit of time before we saw product successes.”
The increasing commercial and clinical potential of radiopharmaceuticals has led to growing big pharma and investor interest in the last decade. This week, Precirix became the latest radiopharmaceutical biotech to get big venture capital (VC) support. The firm raised €80M in a Series B round led by European life sciences heavyweights Inkef Capital, Jeito Capital, and Forbion.
According to Sabine Dandiguian, Managing Partner at Jeito, the three VCs came together and were excited by the potential of Precirix’s antibody technology in radiopharmaceuticals. “We wanted to build a European champion,” she added.
The core design of radiopharmaceutical drugs consists of a cancer-seeking drug attached by a linker molecule to a radioactive chemical that can destroy cancer cells. The carrier molecule can be anything from small molecules to monoclonal antibodies. Small molecule carriers can typically access more cancer sites than can antibody carriers, but they bind more weakly to their targets.
In the case of Precirix, previously known as Camel IDS, the cancer-seeking component is a fragment of an antibody found in animals from the camelid family, which includes llamas and camels. These antibody fragments bind to their targets as strongly as regular antibody drugs but can access more cancer sites like a small molecule.
The round proceeds will let Precirix complete a phase I/II trial of its lead candidate radiopharmaceutical to treat late-stage breast and gastric cancer. The treatment is also expected to tackle cancer that has spread to the brain, where patients need more therapies urgently.
“[Our technology] can enter brain lesions when there is a leak in the blood–brain barrier,” said Devenyns. “Can small molecules do that as well? Yes, but there aren’t any that are as precise that can actually target as well as we can.”
Precirix plans to develop its platform technology by tinkering with different linker molecules and manufacturing processes. Like with many radiopharmaceutical drugs, the company can also use one radioactive molecule on the carrier to image the cancer and another radioisotope to kill the tumor; this blend of treatment and imaging is known as theranostics.
“You can attach to this carrier whatever radioisotope you wish,” said Dandiguian. “It’s a platform, a new generation in radiopharmaceuticals.”
Novartis’ AAA continues to be one of the leading figures in radiopharmaceutical development, with a candidate in phase III. Other players running phase III trials of radiopharmaceutical drugs include Telix Pharmaceuticals in Australia and ITM in Germany.
Many upstart firms are aiming to maximize the cancer-killing power of radiopharmaceuticals while minimizing side effects. One rising star is RayzeBio in the US, which raised €89M ($108M) in a Series C round last year. RayzeBio is developing radiopharmaceutical drugs that emit a form of radiation called alpha; most current radiopharmaceuticals deploy beta radiation. According to RayzeBio, alpha radiation can blast nearby tumor cells without affecting healthy tissue close to the tumor site.
As radiopharmaceuticals are distinct from conventional drugs, the logistics and manufacture of these drugs are typically less advanced in many hospitals. The growing momentum in radiopharmaceuticals development may allow more centers to roll out facilities able to supply and administer the drugs.
“The more you see big actors developing and deploying radiopharmaceuticals … the more we will open the market and this new hope for patients,” said Dandiguian.
While Europe has abundant experience with radiopharmaceuticals, the continent typically lags behind the US when it comes to commercialization.
“Technology-wise if you look at the drugs that came to market first, like Lutathera or Xofigo, they are actually European developments,” said Devenyns. “If you look where these drugs are mostly being sold and being commercialized, it’s more on the US side.” She added that logistics and reimbursement across the different regions were likely factors in this difference.
The decision by Jeito and other European VCs to establish a European radiopharmaceuticals champion comes as the war in Ukraine has made many US investors cautious with their European ventures. However, European biotechs in general present big potential for investors.
“There is good science in Europe,” said Dandiguian. “And I would say valuation is low in Europe, so there are good opportunities.”
Cover image via Anastasiia Slynko