A laboratory specialist removes products from a cryogenic storage dewar in a storage room at the Sotio AS biotechnology company in Prague, Czech Republic. (Photographer: Martin Divisek/Bloomberg)

New GV Investment Is the Latest in Hot Immunotherapy Space

(Bloomberg) -- The growing promise of immunotherapy is attracting attention from scientists and startups. Companies trying to cure cancer raised roughly $4 billion from venture investors last year, with an increasing number focused on reprogramming a patient’s own immune system to eradicate the disease.

Startup PACT Pharma Inc. is accelerating its work on one such treatment thanks to a fresh $95 million from Alphabet Inc.’s venture arm GV, Canaan Partners and other investors. The two-year-old startup will use the cash to expand operations and begin human clinical trials next year.

Recent blockbuster wins from big immuno-oncology companies Kite Pharma Inc., purchased by Gilead Sciences Inc. in August for $11.9 billion, and Juno Therapeutics Inc., purchased by Celgene Corp. in January for $9 billion, have added to the field’s allure.

So has the fact that the technology is still so new and its applications are so complex that there’s no clear single winning solution. There are more than 240 immuno-oncology treatments now in development, according to an industry report last year.

“The science is on our side. If we fail, it’s our fault,” said Blake Byers, a GV general partner who has served as PACT’s interim president since December. “The big risk here is a failure of operations.”

PACT’s technology reprograms a cancer patient's immune system cells to eradicate the disease. The process involves taking a biopsy of a person's cancer tissue, sequencing the tumor's DNA and then using predictive algorithms to engineer T-cells, involved in the body’s immune response, to combat that specific disease as it expresses itself in the patient. The last step is injecting the cocktail back into the patient.

“The question is,” Byers said, “are we going to make enough good T-cells to be effective?”

The startup’s co-founders, Terry Rosen and Juan Jaen, first co-founded biotech company Flexus Biosciences Inc. and sold it to Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. for as much as $1.25 billion in 2015. They then co-founded cancer immunotherapy company Arcus Biosciences Inc. that same year. A year after that, they struck upon the idea for PACT, co-locating it in the same Hayward, California lab and office space as Arcus.

PACT had previously raised around $31 million.

Byers—who also oversees GV investments including Robinhood, Gusto, LendUp and Collective Health—said he is speaking to a half dozen candidates to permanently take the top job and expects to name a replacement within the next six months.

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