The new year has brought good news for Boston-based Ikena oncology, which raised $120 million to push its pipeline of patient-specific, next-generation targeted oncology and immunometabolism therapies. This funding comes at an opportune moment for the company that just started prepping its Hippo-targeting drug for new drug application. The funding round was led by Omega Funds along with some new investors, including Fidelity Management and Research Company, Surveyor Capital, Invus, Farallon Capital Management, BVF Partners, Cowen Healthcare Investments, Logos Capital, and HealthCor Management.
Ikena was launched in 2016 with a vision to develop personalized cancer therapies that can reverse the effect of tumor-generated metabolites on the host immune system. Their major focus was on IDO/TDO pathways, a mechanism used by tumor cells to suppress T cell attack. They developed programs that attack components of IDO/TDO pathways, specifically kynurenine, an immunosuppressive metabolite, and its receptor, AHR. The unique understanding of cancer metabolic pathways and an attractive pipeline grabbed Celgene’s attention, which then later formed a partnership with Ikena to develop immunometabolic therapies for treating cancer.
According to the new board member of the Ikena and Managing Director of Omega funds, Otello Stampacchia, “The rise of tumor profiling across many cancer types has rapidly increased demand for more precise and personalized treatments to improve both drug development and patient outcomes. With its portfolio of first-in-class, biomarker-driven therapies that target key cancer drivers, Ikena is uniquely positioned to have a significant positive impact on cancer patients and build stakeholder value.”
Ikena’s Impressive Pipeline
This funding will help Ikena support its existing pipeline of immunotherapy drugs as well as its new pipeline of targeted oncology drugs. The company’s immunotherapy pipeline consists of three assets, IK-175 targets AHR receptor, IK-412 degrades kynurenine, and IK-007 antagonizes the prostaglandin EP4 receptor. IK-175, which is jointly developed by Celgene advanced to the clinic late last year, IK-412 is being made ready for FDA’s IND approval and IK-007 is being tested in combination with Keytruda in phase1/2 colorectal and NSCLC cancer trials.
Ikena’s second pipeline consists of drugs that target the Hippo and KRAS pathway. The company’s Hippo pathway inhibitor, IK-930 has shown favorable pharmacokinetics profile and anti-tumor activity in preclinical models harboring Hippo pathway mutations. The company is all set to file an IND application for the drug in the second half of 2021.
Details about the drug targeting the KRAS pathway, on the other hand, are still under wraps. However, what is known is that the target promotes cancer growth when KRAS is mutated and knockout of the same prevent tumor formation in KRAS mutant lung and pancreas.
Investors’ Interest in Hippo-Targeting Drugs
The hippo pathway is important for healthy cells where it regulates organ size and apoptosis. But mutations in the pathway drive several cancers, including tumors of lung, chest, and brain linings. Such tumors depend on activated YAP to survive and grow, but, despite this understanding, the researchers have failed to shut down this protein.
So far, there are no approved therapies for this target, which brings companies developing the drugs for the target in the limelight. Two companies, Ikena and Vivace Therapeutics, which are working on this pathway, are targeting a protein called TEAD that forms a complex with YAP and makes it fully functional. While Ikena is targeting the protein directly, Vivace Therapeutics is blocking the attachment of the fatty acid essential for working of TEAD protein. Looking at the investments in these companies, a clear interest from investors can be seen in the Hippo pathway and its potential impact on the field of oncology.
By Ruchi Jhonsa, Ph.D.
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