Achilles Therapeutics’s raising of $120 million to conduct clinical trials of a cancer treatment underscores the promise of therapies that use immune systems to target and eradicate tumor cells.

The Achilles therapy uses a unique T-cell, a type of white blood cell integral to the body’s immune system to target and eliminate abnormal cancer cells, targeting non-small cell lung cancer and melanoma.

“We have moved from concept to clinic-ready in less than three years,” Achilles CEO Iraj Ali said in a statement. The funds will help the company “bring novel cancer therapies rapidly to patients with a high unmet medical need.” 

Immuno-oncology has been among the most promising developments in cancer research, improving the long-term prospects of some patients with advanced stage cancer. “Compared with traditional cancer therapies, the approach described as Immuno-Oncology (I-O) therapy offers a more effective treatment alternative for some patients with cancer,” according to a May article in the Journal for ImmunoTherapy of Cancer. 

RA Capital Management, a Boston-based investment firm that focuses on life sciences and healthcare, led the funding round, which also included Forbion, Perceptive Advisors and Redmile Group. 

“RA Capital is impressed by the scientific co-founders, management team, board of directors, and vision of the company, and we are excited to support Achilles as they progress into the clinic this year,” said Derek DiRocco, principal at RA Capital Management.

Neither Achilles nor RA Capital responded to Karma requests for additional comment. Oncology diagnosis and treatment companies have raised $7.17 billion in venture capital so far this year, according to Pitchbook. 

Syncona, a publicly traded U.K.-based life sciences investment trust that co-founded Achilles with Cancer Research Technology in 2016, also contributed to the latest round. Syncona led Achilles’ $17.5 million A round the same year with contributions by the CRT Pioneer Fund and the University College London Technology Fund. 

  • Achilles is the result of research by University College and Francis Crick Institute scientists, who received initial financial support from the Cancer Research UK and the National Institute for Health Research.
  • DiRocco and Rogier Rooswinkel, a Forbion partner, will join the Achilles board, the company said. Both DiRocco and Rooswinkel are veteran life sciences executives. 
  • According to Cancer Research UK, there were 16,000 new melanoma cases in the U.K. annually — about 44 per day — from 2014-2016, the last year for which statistics are available. Melanoma is the fifth-most common cancer in the U.K. Lung cancer is the third-most common cancer in the U.K. with more than 47,000 cases a year — about 130 each day. 
  • The American Cancer Society has predicted almost 100,000 melanoma cases in the U.S. in 2019. About one in 16 Americans will receive a lung cancer diagnosis in their lifetime, according to a study by the National Cancer Institute. 

Karma Take: Achilles’ success in raising money for its clinical studies may be a signal that immuno-oncology therapies are about to take a giant step forward and that investors should keep an eye on biotech startups working in the area.