New paradigms for an ancient disease
Cancer has been rightfully termed the emperor of all maladies. This ancient disease remains one of the leading threats to human health, causing more than 18 million new cases and nearly 10 million deaths around the globe every year1. The impact of cancer will only increase as people live longer, giving cancer-causing mutations more time to build up in the body’s cells, and we urgently need innovative new therapies to combat it in all its many diverse forms.
Bayer has a long and storied history in oncology, and it is on a mission to become one of the top 10 oncology companies by 2030. At Leaps, we aim to use our investments to push the frontiers of cancer therapies forward, moving from treatment to cure. I am excited by several new portfolio companies that are developing groundbreaking approaches, including cell and gene therapy modalities.
Cancer starts when the body’s cells rebel and start growing out of control, and some of the most exciting therapeutic approaches today harness the body’s own defenses to fight this disease. Immunotherapies like CAR-T cells teach immune cells to attack tumors, and five such therapies are already available to treat certain types of hematological malignancies.
But current immunotherapies are still costly and inconsistent, and there are still limited treatment options for some of the deadliest forms of cancer. Several of our portfolio companies target limitations in the current approaches, building towards a new generation of more effective, widely available medicines, in immunotherapy and beyond.
For instance, recent investment Affini-T Therapeutics has developed a sophisticated approach that combines synthetic biology with T-cell engineering to build potentially curative therapies for patients with intractable solid tumors. Up to 30% of all solid tumors contain mutations in the cancer driver gene KRAS, a gene previously described as “undruggable” due to the difficulty of finding small-molecule inhibitors against the protein it produces2. Affini-T’s cell-therapy platform engineers T cells to recognize and target cells that have mutant forms of KRAS, expanding the reach of T-cell therapies to patients who have some of the deadliest forms of cancer, including lung cancer, colorectal cancer, and pancreatic cancer.
Another innovative, potentially game-changing approach comes from Capstan Therapeutics, which is developing a platform for precision, in vivo cell engineering that can be applied to cancer, autoimmune diseases, and certain genetic diseases as well. A major limitation of current autologous T-cell therapies is that T cells must be removed from a patient, engineered in a lab to recognize the tumor, and then reintroduced into the patient’s body — a costly and time-consuming process. Capstan is harnessing the same technologies that underlie COVID vaccines (mRNA) to engineer cells directly in a patient’s body. Lipid nanoparticles deliver genetic instructions to T cells in the form of mRNA, teaching the T cells to recognize and destroy tumor cells. This platform circumvents the need for the current, expensive engineering process, opening avenues to expand the power and reach of immunotherapies. What’s more, these approaches can also be used for precision gene editing. By using mRNA to deliver machinery for gene editing, Capstan is developing new approaches for treating monogenic blood disorders and other inherited diseases — all without the viral vectors that have limited therapeutic potential due to cargo carrying capacity and immunogenicity concerns.
Indapta takes yet another ambitious approach to transform cancer therapeutics, this time focusing on natural killer cells, white blood cells that can destroy tumors by releasing cancer-killing compounds. Indapta harnesses the power of G-NK cells, which carry epigenetic changes that enhance their anti-tumor activity compared to standard NK cells. These G-NK cells can increase the efficacy and durability of monoclonal antibody therapies aimed at destroying tumors, potentially expanding treatment avenues for many cancers. The G-NK therapies developed by Indapta are isolated from healthy donors. This allogeneic approach also circumvents the need for cell engineering, creating possibilities for off-the-shelf immunotherapies that are less costly and more consistent than current immunotherapies on the market.
Affini-T, Capstan, and Indapta are three of our newest investments in fighting cancer, but our portfolio of oncology companies is broad and deep. Leaps has partnered with other companies like Century Therapeutics, Triumvira, and Khloris Biosciences to push the boundaries of cell therapies for cancer treatment. And, to fight cancer’s myriad forms, we are also investing in additional, groundbreaking approaches. Portfolio companies like Immunitas Therapeutics, Deka Biosciences, and Pyxis Ocology are developing next-generation immunotherapies, while Senti Bio and Gro Biosciences are building platforms based on breakthroughs in synthetic biology. Meanwhile, Arvinas and Dewpoint are taking creative, novel approaches to cancer therapy that are rooted in the biology of protein degradation and cellular condensates.
Cancer is still one of the most daunting threats to human health, but I am humbled and excited by how scientists are harnessing advances in immunology, genetic engineering, and cell therapies to develop new therapies with the potential to change the lives of patients around the world. Together, we can build the therapies of tomorrow to make cancer a disease of the past.