Immuno-oncology startup KAHR to work with Philadelphia university on new drugs

KAHR’s leading drug candidate, now in clinical trials, is based on a compound that targets cancer cells, weakens their defenses and activates a local immune response

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Illustrative image of cancer cells (Design Cells; iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative image of cancer cells (Design Cells; iStock by Getty Images)

KAHR, a maker of cancer immunotherapies, said it has entered into an exclusive licensing agreement with Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia to develop and commercialize a number of new cancer drug candidates.

Under the agreement, the university is granting KAHR the license to develop and commercialize new immuno-oncology drug candidates based on fusion proteins. These drugs are complex structures made by fusing the natural sequence of different proteins to make them bind two or three targets on cancer and immune cells. The new drug candidates entering development are called DSP502 (TIGITxPD1) and DSP216 (LILRB2xSIRPa).

The agreement is seen as enabling KAHR to “broaden our immuno-oncology target pipeline and positioning KAHR as a world leader in the fusion protein space,” said Yaron Pereg, CEO of KAHR. The two drugs, DSP502 and DSP216, unleash “the potential of innate and adaptive immune cells and enhance anti-tumor immunoactivity,” he said.

The drugs differ from current medications in that they target the ligands of cells, not the receptors, which increases their ability to pinpoint tumors. Ligands are molecules that produce a signal by binding to a site on a target protein. Receptors are proteins on the surface of cells that bind to ligands and cause responses in the immune system.

“Expanding our collaboration with the outstanding team at KAHR provides the opportunity to expand this new platform into novel targets and to unleash the activity of other immune cell types of the innate and adaptive immune systems,” said Dr. Mark Tykocinski, provost of Thomas Jefferson University and dean of its Sidney Kimmel Medical College.

KAHR in August got a nod from the US Food and Drug Administration to start clinical trials on its flagship drug candidate, called DSP-107, which is based on a compound that simultaneously targets cancer cells, weakens their defenses and activates an effective, local response. This is possible because the drug performs a dual action, using dual signaling proteins (DSP) — namely, one human protein marks the cancer cells, while a second human protein activates immune cells and inhibit the powers of the cancer cells.

DSP-107 is currently being evaluated in a Phase 1/2 multicenter study to evaluate its safety as a standalone treatment in patients with advanced solid tumors and in combination with another immunotherapy medication, developed by Swiss multinational healthcare firm Roche, called Tecentriq, or atezolizumab.

Healthy cells in our body have what are called immune checkpoints, which are molecules on the surface of all cells that prevent cells in charge of protecting our body — called immune cells — from attacking them. When immune cells bind to these checkpoint molecules, their “killer” activity is inhibited. Cancer cells are able to overexpress these immune checkpoint molecules, to camouflage themselves as normal cells, and thus manage to go undetected by the immune system, eluding recognition and attack.

Effective immunotherapies must both disable the defenses of the cancer cells and at the same time activate an effective targeted immune attack, KAHR believes. Thus, the technology the startup has developed is based on what are called multi-functional immuno-recruitment proteins (MIRP). These proteins know how to identify the overexpression of the checkpoint molecules on the cancer cells, target them and bind to them. After binding, they become sort of beacons that call on the immune system to attack, unmasking the cancer camouflage and enabling an immune response that will selectively kill the cancer cells.

The startup has raised $30 million to date from investors including Swedish VC firm Flerie Invest AB, private equity firm Oriella Limited, Hadasit Bio-Holdings, US private equity investor Pavilion Capital, Mirae Asset Venture Investment, and Asia’s Korean Investment Partners and DSC Investments.

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