Startup that makes personalized cancer treatments gets $93 million in funding – SFGate

Posted: September 7, 2017 at 12:44 pm

By Catherine Ho, San Francisco Chronicle

Photo: Leah Millis, The Chronicle

Senior scientist Xiaomei Wang runs a western blot in the lab at Gritstone Oncology in Emeryville on Sept. 6, 2017.

Senior scientist Xiaomei Wang runs a western blot in the lab at Gritstone Oncology in Emeryville on Sept. 6, 2017.

Andrew Allen, M.D., Ph.D., Co-founder, President and Chief Executive Officer of Gritstone Oncology in Emeryville on Sept. 6, 2017

Andrew Allen, M.D., Ph.D., Co-founder, President and Chief Executive Officer of Gritstone Oncology in Emeryville on Sept. 6, 2017

Research associate Hadley Hanson works on DNA purification in the lab at Gritstone Oncology in Emeryville on Sept. 6, 2017.

Research associate Hadley Hanson works on DNA purification in the lab at Gritstone Oncology in Emeryville on Sept. 6, 2017.

Research associate Hadley Hanson works on DNA purification in the lab at Gritstone Oncology in Emeryville on Sept. 6, 2017

Research associate Hadley Hanson works on DNA purification in the lab at Gritstone Oncology in Emeryville on Sept. 6, 2017

Andrew Allen, M.D., Ph.D., Co-founder, President and Chief Executive Officer works at his desk at Gritstone Oncology in Emeryville on Sept. 6, 2017.

Andrew Allen, M.D., Ph.D., Co-founder, President and Chief Executive Officer works at his desk at Gritstone Oncology in Emeryville on Sept. 6, 2017.

Research associate Naomi Baxter analyzes infectious viruses in the lab at Gritstone Oncology in Emeryville on Sept. 6, 2017.

Research associate Naomi Baxter analyzes infectious viruses in the lab at Gritstone Oncology in Emeryville on Sept. 6, 2017.

Startup that makes personalized cancer treatments gets $93 million in funding

Gritstone Oncology, the two-year-old Emeryville startup that develops immunotherapy treatments for cancer, has received $93 million in new financing, the company announced Thursday.

The privately held company is one of several Bay Area startups making inroads in applying artificial intelligence to drug discovery, a fast-growing segment of the health technology field that has attracted hundreds of millions of dollars from investors over the last few years.

Gritstone, though, has amassed more financing than many other drug discovery startups that incorporate AI. And experts say it is one of the first companies to attempt to use AI in precision medicine for oncology applying a computer-generated algorithm to create a unique treatment for each individual patient, as opposed to merely using AI in drug discovery for traditional pills.

The newly announced funding brings the companys total backing to nearly $200 million. The firm plans to use part of the new funding to complete the construction of a 43,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Pleasanton.

Gritstone designs personalized immunotherapy treatments to destroy cancerous cells by taking a sample of a patients tumor and sending it to the companys lab in Cambridge, Mass., to sequence the tumors DNA and RNA. That data is fed into an artificial intelligence model designed to predict which antigens are most likely to be effective in a therapeutic vaccine that will be injected into the patient. The predictions are based on data collected from many previous tumor samples, and information on which antigens worked best to attack those cancer cells.

Because tumor cells mutate, they create many foreign proteins the immune system does not recognize. Antigens induce the immune system to recognize certain targets on cancer cells that should be attacked.

Only something like 1 percent of those mutations will create a good target on the surface of the tumor cell, said Gritstone co-founder and CEO Andrew Allen. The question is, from the hundreds, how do I identify the handful that would be good targets? Thats a very challenging problem.

Gritstone, which has about 65 employees, is currently manufacturing vaccines that are being tested on animals. It plans to start making human-grade vaccines for patients in clinical trials by mid-2018. The most immediate applications for humans will be for lung and gastric cancer because those types of cancer create many mutations in tumor cells, Allen said. Eventually, for the technology to reach the market, it would have to receive Food and Drug Administration approval.

Researchers and some startups have found success in using a predictive model in drug discovery, including repurposing existing drugs to treat new diseases by analyzing their molecular components. But applying the same approach in immunotherapy is innovative because it deals with each individual patients needs, said Dr. Marina Sirota, an assistant professor at the Institute for Computational Health Sciences at UCSF, which studies ways to analyze health data to detect patterns in diseases to help doctors treat patients more effectively.

I think its a very innovative approach in this space, she said. There have been methods developed in the past to figure out, computationally, the best use for a given drug. But it hasnt been done a personalized level yet for a specific patient. So thats the novelty. Thats such a promising area for cancer treatment in general.

Gritstones new funders include GV, formerly known as Google Ventures, Lilly Asia Ventures, Trinitas Capital of Beijing and Alexandria Venture Investments. Early backers that are also participating in the new funding round include Versant Ventures, the Column Group, Carus Funds and Frazier Healthcare Partners.

Catherine Ho is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: cho@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @Cat_Ho

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Startup that makes personalized cancer treatments gets $93 million in funding – SFGate

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