EPFL spin-off develops protein to boost immunotherapy

EPFL spin-off Leman Biotech has developed a protein that can improve the effectiveness of immunotherapy drugs used to treat some types of cancer. The firm has just completed its first funding round, in the amount of $11 million.
Li Tang, cofounder of Leman Biotech and EPFL professor © 2022 Alain Herzog

Immunotherapy is a promising new weapon in the fight against some types of cancer. It involves enhancing the ability of a patient’s own immune system to identify and destroy tumor cells. However, this form of treatment fails in around two thirds of patients because their T cells – the main cancer-killing lymphocytes – become exhausted. One option scientists are currently studying to improve the efficacy of immunotherapy is to add a protein that gives a boost to tired T cells. That’s the path being explored by Leman Biotech, a company spun off from EPFL less than six months ago. Its researchers have tested one such protein and found it has a nearly 90% efficacy rate on mice. The company just raised $11 million in its first funding round.

Promising preclinical trials

EPFL’s Laboratory of Biomaterials for Immunoengineering, working as part of a cross-disciplinary team with several universities, published an article in Nature Immunology last spring detailing an artificial protein they engineered, called interleukin-10-Fc, that can revitalize T cells. Their compound targets CD8+ T cells in particular, as these play a central role in the body’s defense against tumors. The engineered protein works by penetrating into the mitochondria – also known as a cell’s powerhouse. When the cells reach a state of exhaustion, the protein combines with a mitochondrial pyruvate carrier to quietly reprogram the cells’ metabolism. After getting this second wind, the T cells are ready to head back out into combat.

Preclinical trials on mice showed that when the protein is used in conjunction with an immunotherapy drug, the recovery rate from cancer is nearly 90%. “We ran several more preclinical trials these past few months using different types of human tumors transplanted into mice,” says Prof. Li Tang from the EPFL laboratory. “The results were just as encouraging, and the mice went on to have normal life expectancies.”

A protein that can supplement existing treatments

Tang filed patents to protect his technology after his initial promising findings, with the help of EPFL’s Technology Transfer Office (TTO). “There were two inventions that needed to be protected,” says Natalia Giovannini from the TTO. “The interleukin-10-Fc protein fragment used to reprogram T cell metabolism, and the cells that carry those fragments.” Tang also cofounded a company, Leman Biotech, to market his technology. The next step will be to complete the preclinical trials and then enter the clinical phase, which the firm hopes to do within two years.

This new protein is administered using a method that’s already employed in hospitals, such as CAR-T therapy. Doctors collect blood from a patient and apply an immunotherapy treatment coupled with the new protein directly to the T cells. The boosted cells are then injected back into the patient.

Now hiring for a rapid ramp-up

“For a first funding round, $11 million is a hefty sum,” says Giovannini. “Leman Biotech’s success in attracting capital reflects the considerable interest in its innovation.” The company will use the proceeds to quickly ramp up its operations. “We’ve already opened two research labs – one in the new Biopôle building in Epalinges, and the other in southern China where our cofounder is based,” says Tang. He’s now looking forward to hiring several new researchers as well as technical and administrative staff. “We’ll post the job offers in the next few weeks,” he says.