Switzerland-headquartered oncology biotech iOnctura has closed a €20.1m Series A round led by existing investors INKEF Capital and VI Partners. The company’s founding investor M Ventures – the venture capital arm of the Merck group – also participated in the round. The fundraising was supported by two new investors: Schroder Adveq and 3B Future Health.

Launched in 2017, iOnctura is a spin-out from the Merck group focused on delivering “next-generation, best-in-class molecules that are at the forefront of pioneering new therapies for the treatment of cancer”, explains iOnctura CEO Catherine Pickering. The company has licensed assets from both the Merck group and Cancer Research UK that are focused on modulating the immunosuppression in the tumour microenvironment.

The Series A financing will be used to “enable iOnctura to accelerate development of its next generation dual immune and tumour-targeting therapies”, IOA-244 and IOA-289, notes Pickering. “The oversubscribed Series A round provides further validation and support of iOnctura’s strategy as it progresses its novel, highly selective, PI3Kδ inhibitor [IOA-244] and differentiated autotaxin [ATX] inhibitor [IOA-289] through clinical development.”

Treating cancer and fibrosis

Fibrosis is “becoming a very active area of research and is extending into oncology applications”, due to awareness of the similar and complementary cellular and microenvironment processes in chronic fibrosis and cancer. Pickering notes: “Most of the initial interest is in the deeper understanding of the complex pathways involved in the fibrotic process.”

This led iOnctura to look into the role of fibrotic processes in oncology to help overcome the challenges facing immunotherapy. “iOnctura is aiming to understand what is happening at a molecular level within the tumour environment and disrupt the fibrotic processes that are sustaining the tumour growth and progression,” explains Pickering. The plan is to harness this mechanism to “deliver superior clinical efficacy in monotherapy or combinations”.

Pickering adds: “By building on complementary mechanisms between cancer and fibrosis, iOnctura further aims to address high unmet need in fibrotic disease.”

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To this end, iOnctura has two lead candidates – IOA-244 and IOA-289. IOA-244 is a next-generation PI3Kδ inhibitor, which is in early clinical evaluation and is expected to enter a Phase Ib study soon. iOnctura is seeking to “clinically demonstrate for the first time that a highly selective PI3Kδ inhibition not only drives an immune-mediated response, but also a direct anti-tumoural effect in a stratified patient population across multiple solid tumour indications”, explains Pickering.

IOA-289 is a novel ATX inhibitor targeting the mechanisms of fibrosis, with “superior potency compared to clinical-stage ATX inhibitors”. It is being studied as “a first-in-class therapy for solid tumour indications that over-express ATX and are burdened with cancer-associated fibrosis”, notes Pickering. IOA-289 has performed well in pre-clinical studies to date, and iOnctura is hoping to advance the drug into clinical development early next year.

Investors respond to the deal

“M Ventures helped the founding team spin-out iOnctura from Merck in June 2017 and seed-financed the company with two programs against targets that modulate these mechanisms, with one program licensed from Cancer Research UK,” explains M Ventures vice-president Hakan Goker.  “With the seed funding, the company progressed to validate these two programs further and completed its CTA package for its lead program.”

Goker says this Series A financing will allow iOnctura the “opportunity to speed up its clinical development to validate the biological hypotheses and potentially demonstrate effect in some tough-to-treat cancer indications”.

“Tumour microenvironment and tumour fibrosis are key areas of unmet medical need in treating cancer,” he adds.

Goker concludes: “We remain very excited to support the company and the experienced management team, who have impressed us with their experience and strategic thinking focused around delivering better treatments to patients.”

VI Partners managing partner Diego Braguglia agrees, stating:“We are excited to provide continued support to iOnctura as it continues to develop its pipeline.” VI Partners is an evergreen fund created by McKinsey and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. VI Partners focuses on “stimulating and cultivating Switzerland’s start-up ecosystem”, explains Braguglia.

“Our strategy is to identify and support a combination of talented management teams and novel treatments addressing high unmet medical needs using innovative scientific insights. In iOnctura, we found a great balance of all these components,” notes Amsterdam-based INKEF Capital managing partner Roel Bulthuis.

“The highly experienced executive management team led by Catherine Pickering at iOnctura has a solid track record in drug development and commercialisation,” adds Bulthuis.  “iOnctura was able to align high-profile collaboration with a series of world-class scientific institutions and experts, thus consolidating a highly novel scientific understanding of the assets being developed.”

Bulthuis concludes: “These aspects, together the team’s performance regularly exceeding our expectations, are for us a true and valuable differentiator and make iOnctura stand out among the many ventures active in oncology.”