Tuesday, April 23, 2024

NC trend: Durham biotech veteran gets another chance

There’s a lot of promise in gene-based disease treatment therapies, and a lot of hype. Language around the industry is rife with superlatives — “transformative,” “pioneering,” “paradigm changing,” and so on. 

There’s no one way to know what’s real because many therapies show promise in early trials, then fail to pan out. But following the money is probably as good a way as any. To that end, Tune Therapeutics is heading in the right direction. 

Based in Durham and Seattle, Tune was launched in December 2021 to develop so-called “epigenomic tools” to address a broad range of diseases. Earlier this year, it raised $120 million in its second funding round, up from $40 million in its Series A, according to Pitchbook, which tracks venture investing.

The lead investor is NEA, a major venture capital firm with offices in Menlo Park, California, New York City, and other places. It was joined by the Emerson Collective, established by Lauren Powell Jobs, the widow of the late Apple founder Steve Jobs, and Durham-based Hatteras Venture Partners. Pappas Capital, also from Durham, is an investor too, its first foray into epigenomics.

Several companies in the industry have attracted major dollars over the past two years. Chroma, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, launched in November 2021, has raised $260 million, according to the Crunchbase website.

Grizzled CEO 
The epigenome refers to chemical compounds in the body that modify genes — telling them what to do and when and where to do it. The term is derived from the Greek word “epi,” meaning “above.” The epigenome sits above the genome and “tunes” how genes are expressed. Unlike gene editing, epigenomics holds the promise of modifying gene behavior without inadvertently damaging DNA sequences, and it can be turned on and off. In something of a reprise of the Lamarck vs. Darwin schism over evolution, epigenomic marks can be passed from cell to cell and from one generation to the next, while changes rendered through gene editing generally cannot. 

There is considerable excitement around this new technology, based on the potential to “reverse pathways of cancer, genetic disease, and aging by changing cell fate and function,” as Tune puts it. 

CEO Matt Kane, who joined the company at launch, is a familiar face in Durham biotechnology circles and experienced with start-ups. He co-founded Precision BioSciences and served as CEO. The gene-editing
start-up went public in March 2019 at $16 per share, raising $145 million. It’s since been a rocky road,
reflecting the risk in early stage biotech companies. The company reported $340 million in net losses between 2019 and 2022. The stock traded for about 60 cents in late June. 

Kane, who owned a 4% stake according to company filings, departed in October 2021.

Tune calls its proprietary platform Tempo, a set of technologies that can be used to modulate specific genes or groups of genes. This provides the ability to “screen for activators or repressors of gene expression in a wide variety of cell types and disease states, revealing new disease associations and targets in a matter of days or weeks. This shortens timelines of discovery and selection and increases the capacity for rapid clinical development of candidates,” according to the company.

Tune stems from decades of research conducted by Charles Gersbach, a biomedical engineering professor at Duke University and a serial entrepreneur. Co-founder Fyodor Urnov is a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and a director at the Innovative Genomics Institute. 

Epigenetics is a potential growth industry for the state. Tune employs about 85 people, including 40 at the Durham headquarters. This (Tune) is “very important for our research base here in North Carolina and in Durham, providing the opportunity to look at this cutting edge epigenetic approach to clinical medicine,” says Art Pappas of Pappas Capital.

North Carolina is receiving $51 million in federal grants to conduct epigenetics research for the fiscal year ending in September, on top of $59 million in the previous year, according to the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. The main recipients are research universities, including UNC Chapel Hill and Wake Forest. 

“There is great potential for growth in epigenetics,” says Jen Greenstein, director of emerging company investments at the biotech center. “With a lot of amazing research happening at N.C. universities and at early stage companies, we expect to see more technology commercialization in the years to come.”

Holy grail?
Many of these technologies have yet to be shown to be effective
in humans, though progress is being made. While
Tune declines to discuss its pipeline, CEO Kane says that the company has launched multiple discovery programs to explore “how to best apply our epigenetic tools to a variety of applications.” Most recently, it presented data it said demonstrated the “stable repression” of the gene responsible for controlling LDL cholesterols levels in non-human primates, such as macaque monkeys. LDL is associated with the formation of artery-clogging plaques in humans. The company characterized this advance as “incredibly promising.” 

Still, the path of biomedical research rarely runs smoothly. While hundreds of millions of dollars has been spent on research, the field “hasn’t fully lived up to its potential,” with
few drugs on the market, according to a 2021 story in the industry trade newsletter Biopharma Dive. 

Enough time and money may solve these challenges, however. Fans of epigenomic-based medicine tend to sound as if they have discovered the Holy Grail of bioengineering. “Genetic medicine is at a tipping point,” according to Kane in a press release about the company’s formation.  Tune is “primed to become a transformative presence in modern biomedicine,” noted partner Ali Behbahani, co-head of NEA’s healthcare practice.

Progress in the biotech sphere trends to be incremental, unfolding over time. There is considerable optimism about the technology and, just as important, there is money available to invest. Both are good signs for companies such as Tune.

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