Cancer vaccines field sees new player emerge with Gritstone's $102M Series A

Following a wave of recent activity in the cancer vaccines space, Gritstone Oncology burst onto the scene this week, bringing with it financial backing, scientific expertise and new energy to the field that has for years experienced mostly disappointment.

Gritstone CEO Andrew Allen

With Clovis Oncology ($CLVS) cofounder and former chief medical officer Andrew Allen as its CEO and a $102 million Series A round to work with, the company will look to create patient-specific cancer vaccines based on individual neoantigens from tumor analysis. It'll split operations between San Francisco and Cambridge, MA, tapping a variety of experts and venture backers, focusing first on lung cancer.

The company hopes to build on research from Gritstone cofounders Drs. Tim Chan and Naiyer Rizvi, who blazed a trail in neoantigen analysis for checkpoint inhibition at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Clovis Oncology CEO Patrick Mahaffy will serve as Gritstone's chairman, with additional expertise coming from personnel at the Institut Gustave Roussy in Paris, King's College London and Massachusetts General Hospital.

In a statement, Allen said the company's "commitment to do the scientific heavy-lifting," in combination with its expertise and funding, will enable it "to solve the core challenge of identifying personalized, therapeutic neo-antigens for individual patients."

Gritstone's approach and timing resemble a similar announcement earlier this month from Neon Therapeutics, which also intends to develop neoantigen-based cancer vaccines. That company launched with a $55 million Series A round led by Third Rock Ventures to develop lead program NEO-PV-01 and to build a neoantigen cancer vaccine product engine.

The two funding rounds come amid a wave of action in the cancer vaccine space, which has historically had trouble gaining traction. In recent months, many cancer vaccine developers are turning to partnerships to seek out the potential benefits of pairing the vaccines with other anticancer therapies. Recent deals include AstraZeneca's ($AZN) MedImmune partnering with Inovio ($INO) on its HPV cancer vaccine in a deal worth up to $727 million, Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) hitching with Aduro ($ADRO) on GVAX in a pact worth up to $1 billion and Bavarian Nordic partnering with Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) on Prostvac, also a deal worth up to $1 billion.

One recent report predicted cancer vaccines to grow at a CAGR of 27% through 2019, detailing such partnerships as one potential driver.

Versant Ventures and The Column Group led Gritstone's financing, with Clarus Ventures, Frazier Healthcare Partners, Redmile Group, Casdin Capital and Transformational Healthcare Opportunity also participating. 

- here's the release