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  1. Analysis
October 15, 2020

Targeting the tumour stroma: Phenomic AI launches with $6m seed financing

Phenomic AI has secured $6m in seed funding, which it plans to use to advance its two lead candidates into proof-of-concept studies. These two products target CAFs in the tumour stroma, which is responsible for preventing checkpoint inhibitors from working effectively in solid cancers.

By Allie Nawrat

Toronto-headquartered Phenomic AI has launched with $6m in seed funding. The round was led by CTI Life Sciences Fund, while AV8 Ventures, Luminous Ventures, and Viva BioInnovator also joined the round.

Phenomic plans to use this funding to “push our lead programs through in vivo proof-of-concept studies”, explains CEO Sam Cooper. The company’s two lead programmes were discovered using its artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) platform and they are antibody drugs that target the tumour stroma, which has prevented immunotherapies, such as checkpoint inhibitors, working effectively in solid cancers.

Cooper adds the “funds will allow us to continue building out our platform, identify additional drug targets to enrich our pipeline, and expand internal efforts and collaborations with top academic institutions around the world”.

Why Phenomic’s focus on the tumour stroma?

Founded in 2017, Phenomic initially focused on software, but the team “quickly realised our AI/ML platform could be used to screen targets in complex assays that contain different cell types, and which previously presented a significant analysis challenge”, notes Cooper.

CTI Life Sciences Fund managing partner Shermaine Tilley explained in a statement: “Cells do not exist in isolation in the human body, and the interactions between different cell types in disease states carries significant information that Phenomic has unlocked for drug discovery.”

As a result, Phenomic could overcome the challenges involved in understanding how different cells interact in disease states and particularly tumour stroma of solid cancers, “a major unsolved puzzle in cancer”, in the words of Cooper.

The tumour stroma is a very complex barrier to the tumour, which is comprised of many cell types, such as the extracellular matrix and cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAFs) and it is “a major barrier that prevents checkpoint therapies from working effectively,” explains Cooper. Checkpoint inhibitors have been a recent revolution in the treatment of cancers, but solid tumours have been excluded from its benefit because of the tumour stroma.

“By targeting the tumour stroma effectively with therapeutic antibodies, we aim to activate the immune system in stroma-rich cancers, either directly or in combination with immune checkpoint therapies,” says Cooper.

Phenomic’s drugs target CAFs in numerous solid cancers, including colorectal cancer, because analysis suggests “these targets are playing a critical role in promoting tumour growth and blocking anti-tumour immune activity”.

Expansion of scientific advisory board

To coincide with the seed round, Phenomic has appointed chief scientific officer Dr Mike Briskin and two Nobel laureates – Jim Allison and Pam Sharma – to its scientific advisory board.

AV8 general partner Ruchita Sinha commented: “In two years, the Phenomic team has made impressive progress in building their platform and using it to find new drug targets in the tumour stroma. The appointments of Mike, Jim, and Pam, leaders in immuno-oncology, further highlight the exceptional advancements of Phenomic.”

Cooper adds: “Mike’s experience as a serial biotech entrepreneur and his expertise in immuno-oncology is an important addition to the team, and one that will help further our goals of getting exceptional medicines into the clinic and ultimately approved for the benefit of patients.

“Jim and Pam are undoubtedly two of the best immunologists alive today, having brought to light field-defining discoveries in cancer immunology. Their guidance and knowledge have put us in a world-leading position with insights and knowledge needed to effectively solve the stromal puzzle.

“We’re unbelievably happy to have them team up with Phenomic and bring their expertise, and the work that they’ve put into this problem to date, to the company.”

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