Invectys raises €15M series A to fund DNA cancer vaccine study in CLL

French startup Invectys hopes its cancer vaccine can win a spot in immuno-oncology combination therapies, and it just nabbed €15 million ($17 million) in series A funding to support that ambition.

The money will be used to support a phase 2 study of Invectys’ lead candidate, a DNA cancer vaccine dubbed INVAC-1, in chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), the company said in a statement.

The round was led by “a life sciences-savvy family office with multiple stakes in immuno-oncology in the U.S. and in Europe,” along with the company’s current investor, Invectys said. Other private investors also contributed.

INVAC-1 targets telomerase, an enzyme most cancer cells use to grow endlessly. Carrying the DNA encoding an inactive form of telomerase, the therapeutic vaccine works by teaching the immune system to fight telomerase and, in turn, kill cancer cells.

Telomerase is not a new target. Existing therapies include Geron’s late-stage small-molecule imetelstat, which Janssen walked away from last month. Korean company GemVax & Kael has a telomerase vaccine called Riavax, previously known as GV1001, which is approved in Korea to treat certain locally advanced or metastatic pancreatic cancer patients.

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Previous DNA vaccines showed poor immunogenicity because of low cell uptake, but INVAC-1 uses new DNA electroporation technology that can boost absorption a thousandfold, enhancing immunogenicity and effectiveness, Invectys said.

Invectys has been working on the vaccine since it spun out from Institut Pasteur in 2010. Previous data from a phase 1 clinical trial in solid tumor patients showed INVAC-1 is safe and well tolerated and helped stabilize 60% of patients with stage IV cancers, according to the company.

An ongoing phase 2 at the MD Anderson Cancer Center is testing the candidate in two arms of 42 CLL patients each. In one arm, INVAC-1 is paired with Janssen’s Imbruvica. In the second, INVAC is used alone in newly diagnosed patients who aren't eligible for any approved treatment—the so-called “watch and wait” group. These patients are usually treated only when their disease advances, according to Invectys, but still have a poor prognosis. “INVAC-1 hopefully will represent a breakthrough therapy for the treatment of these patients,” said the company.

Meanwhile, Invectys is preparing more clinical trials that pair INVAC-1 with PD-1/L1 inhibitors. And its goal—like many other biopharma companies developing cancer vaccines—is for INVAC-1 “to emerge as mainstream components to combination immuno-oncology regimens,” said CEO Pierre Langlade-Demoyen in a statement.