The Gates foundation is investing $40m to help a private Oxford-based company develop immunotherapies for infectious diseases, ahead of what is expected to be a much larger financing round.
Immunocore, founded in 2008 and owned by a range of corporate investors, has concentrated so far on applying its “T-cell receptor” or TCR technology to treat cancer, where it has alliances with GSK, AstraZeneca and other pharmaceutical groups.
The new investment by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will extend the reach of TCR therapies to fight infections. The first targets will be HIV and TB.
David Rossow, a senior investment officer at the foundation, said $40m was larger than the normal level of its “programme-related investments”, which are more often in the $10m to $15m range. These equity stakes aim to stimulate private sector investment in areas of global health concern such as antimicrobial resistance.
His colleague Chris Karp, Gates director of discovery and translational science, said the commitment reflected the foundation’s belief that “these treatments have the potential to make a fundamental difference in the lives of patients infected with HIV and TB”.
Immunocore’s technology builds on T-cells, which are key components of the human immune system, helping the body to recognise and attack unwanted molecules and pathogens. Many other biotech companies engineer whole living T-cells to treat disease, in particular cancer through Car-T therapies.
In contrast, Immunocore’s approach is to strip off the T-cells’ “receptors”, their recognition organs, which its scientists then engineer to become drugs in their own right. These are in clinical trials against several cancers, with melanoma therapies furthest advanced.
Dr Karp said directing Immunocore’s T-cell receptors against pathogens could treat intractable infections far more effectively than existing drugs. In TB, antibiotics have to be taken for several months to eradicate the bacteria. In HIV, medication suppresses symptoms but does not eliminate latent infection within cells.
Eliot Forster, Immunocore chief executive, emphasised that the company would have to carry out much more pre-clinical work before the anti-infective immunotherapies were ready to test in patients. “We don’t expect them to go into the clinic before the end of the decade,” he said.
If the development goes well, Gates would consider further funding, either through grants or equity investment, Dr Karp said: “Our aim is to harness novel approaches to our most intractable health problems . . . and then to achieve global access to any resulting products.”
Immunocore’s last private funding round raised $320m from a range of institutional investors in July 2015. A similar sized Series B financing announcement is expected shortly; this would push the company’s valuation close to $1bn.