Biotech firm takes cancer fight to startup level

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby

Thumbnail for 6602Renay San Miguel, KING


Medical research institutions may all target the same maladies, but they regularly compete with each other over talent and funding. So how unusual is it for three of the country’s top cancer research facilities to combine their efforts to form a biotech startup company?

“It is relatively rare to bring three institutions of that caliber together to collaborate rather than to compete,” said Hans Bishop, CEO and co-founder of Juno Therapeutics. It’s now his job to help build a business model for Juno, and commercialize the lab work that Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle Children’s Research Institute and New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering are pursuing in immunotherapy.

Bishop, a former executive with Dendreon and Glaxo Wellcome, credits Juno’s scientific co-founders from the three research centers with turning a novel concept into reality.

“From the first time we brought up the idea of making this a much bigger collaboration than normal, they thought it was the right thing to do because the combined talents and expertise of the different experts in those institutions would really put us in an unparalleled position to develop these new medicines,” Bishop said.

Initial clinical studies have provided promising results from immunotherapy, which uses the body’s own immune system — specifically T cells — to attack cancer. It’s a concept that’s been studied for more than a century, according to Mark Frohlich, M.D., Juno’s new executive vice president of research and development.

T cells are great at recognizing potential threats to the body, but not so vigilant when it comes to cancer cells.

“We reprogram them and reengineer them to bind tightly to those cancer cells and kill them,” Frohlich said. “What got me excited about joining Juno were these early clinical results showing that in some patients, very large, bulky tumors were dramatically shrinking and disappearing so we couldn’t even see them by conventional means.”

That may also explain how Bishop and Juno Therapeutics have been able to raise $176 million in Series A venture capital funding in only a few months time. Founding investors include Seattle’s ARCH Venture Partners, Alaska’s Crestline and Jeff Bezos’ investment fund, Bezos Expeditions.

“It’s a large amount of money, probably one of the largest Series A (funding rounds) in biotech history, and it’s really a reflection of the quality of the science,” Bishop said.

Juno Therapeutics doesn’t have this part of the biotech industry to itself. The publicly-traded Swiss pharmaceutical firm Novartis is also hard at work at immunotherapy and was the subject of a recent Forbes Magazine cover story. But Bishop said Juno doesn’t view the competitive landscape that way.

“Our competition here is cancer,” he said. “It’s not Novartis or these other companies. In fact, competition from other companies is going to be good for us and good for patients. We’ve got some unique approaches, particularly how we make these products and in some of the technologies to make these products safer in the long run. But time will play out and tell the story of which companies have got the best therapies. We believe we’ve got the resources to do that.’