NEW YORK – Having closed an $11 million funding round, Singapore-based immune profiling firm ImmunoScape is now looking to launch operations in the US.
The A*STAR of Singapore spin-out aims to open a US facility by the end of the year and begin running collaborations out of that location in the first quarter of 2021, said Choon-Peng Ng, the company's co-founder and CEO.
While ImmunoScape already has ongoing collaborations with a number of US firms, it hopes to grow that business.
"We want to get ourselves closers to the US market and our collaborators to make it more convenient for [US customers] and also to tap the talent pool available in the US," Ng said.
ImmunoScape was launched in 2017 to commercialize immune profiling technology developed by Evan Newell during his time as a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Stanford University researcher Mark Davis and as a principal investigator at A*STAR. Newell, who is co-founder and scientific advisor at ImmunoScape, is now an associate professor at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
The company's platform uses tetramers, oligomers containing major histocompatibility complexes (MHCs) loaded with peptide antigens of interest, to profile patient immune responses.
In the body, MHCs display foreign antigens on the surface of cells, activating the body's T cell response, through which the immune system kills malfunctioning or infected cells. ImmunoScape's tetramers allow the company to present antigen peptides that may figure in conditions like cancer or infectious disease. It can then monitor patterns of T cell binding to those peptides, looking for differences between, for instance, responders and non-responders to a therapy or changes in T cell binding over the course of an individual's treatment regimen.
Such approaches are widely used for investigating T cell responses. ImmunoScape's technology is differentiated by its use of metal barcodes to tag its tetramer reagents so that they can be read out using mass cytometry, which allows it to multiplex hundreds of antigens at a time. Additionally, the mass cytometer can analyze dozens of protein markers within the T cells as it is reading the tetramer barcodes, allowing researchers to simultaneously collect information on T cell-antigen binding and the phenotypic and functional profiles of the bound T cells.
"When we put it through [Fluidigm's] CyTOF, we get two sets of data coming out simultaneously from a single sample," Ng said. "One set is identifying the rare antigen-specific T cells, and the other set is the characterization of the immune cells."
This information, combined with the clinical characteristics of the patients being analyzed provides "a very good picture of what the patient is going through," he said. For instance, "if you are comparing responders to non-responders in a clinical trial, you can uncover biomarkers [of response]. If you are comparing, let's say, patient samples before treatment, two weeks into treatment, and three months after treatment, then you get a look at the biologic activity of the drug in the patient."
ImmunoScape has positioned its platform primarily for use in cancer immunotherapy development, collaborating with pharma firms including Genentech. Last year, researchers from the company along with collaborators at Genentech published a study in the Journal for ImmunoTherapy of Cancer using its platform to profile the CD8+ T cell population of non-small cell lung cancer patients being treated with the PD-L1 inhibitor atezolizumab (marketed by Genentech as Tecentriq).
The researchers looked at eight patients who had responded to therapy and six patients who had not, screening peripheral blood samples for 782 candidate tumor neoantigents and 71 viral-derived control peptide epitopes. They found that T cells specific for the candidate neoantigens were present at higher levels in responding patients and that these T cells had significant different phenotypes from those present in non-responding patients. They found no significant difference in T cell phenotypes between the two groups when they looked at bulk T cell measurements.
Like many firms focused on cancer immunotherapy, ImmunoScape has in recent months pivoted to focus on COVID-19, applying its platform to vaccine development. Ng said that the company has established collaborations with a number of firms developing vaccines to the virus, including San Diego-based Arcturus, which is currently running clinical trials in Singapore. It is also working with researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, the University of Parma, and Duke-NUS studying immune responses to the virus.
Ng said that in its academic collaborations around COVID-19, the company has focused largely on profiling the T cells of patients who have recovered from the disease, looking at which T cells are activated in these patients. It is also providing its tetramer reagents to researchers studying patients in the acute phase of infection along with help with data analysis on the back end.
Prior to the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak, ImmunoScape had entered a collaboration with MGH researcher Patrick Reeves (with whom it is partnering on COVID-19 research) on a pilot study investigating T cell responses generated in clinical trial subjects treated with a universal influenza vaccine being developed by Madison, Wisconsin-based vaccine firm FluGen.
The company’s recent funding round was led by venture firm Anzu Partners and included as investors University of Tokyo Edge Capital (UTEC) and NPR Holdings in Indonesia. UTEC was previously an investor in the company.
Ng said ImmunoScape is considering several sites along the West Coast for its US operation, which will include both scientific and business development personnel. In February, it announced that it was establishing an onsite presence at the La Jolla Institute of Immunology to support the research needs of scientists there. Currently, the company has three employees in the US and 20 in Singapore.