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Aura Biosciences lands $80M funding

24 Mar 2021

Massachusetts firm is taking laser-based treatment of rare and often incurable ocular cancer to pivotal trial.

Aura Biosciences, a company developing a form of infrared photodynamic therapy (PDT) for potential cancer treatment, says it has closed an oversubscribed round of venture funding totaling $80 million.

The Cambridge, Massachusetts, firm adds that it plans to use the proceeds to advance clinical development of its “VDC” technology platform - including a “Phase 3” pivotal trial for a new way of treating rare ocular cancers called choroidal melanomas.

Support for the latest round came from a number of new and existing investors, and was led by Matrix Capital Management and Surveyor Capital. In late 2017 Aura raised $30 million in its series C round.

Infrared laser
VDC is an abbreviation of “virus-like drug conjugate” therapies, which are being researched as a new approach in cancer treatment.

The technique developed by Aura employs virus-like particles (VLPs) that - along with a conjugated photosensitizer dye - are able to bind selectively to tumor cells. A laser is then used to target the cancerous cells, in the process activating the immune system to produce tumor-specific antigens that provide a secondary attack on the malignant cells.

In the case of choroidal melanoma, VDCs selectively bind to the surface of melanoma cells in the eye, explains the firm on its web site. Activation with an infrared ophthalmic laser is said to destroy the cancer cells without damaging key ocular structures.

Aura’s “AU-011” candidate therapy has already begun recruiting for an interventional Phase 2 clinical trial involving 31 patients that began last year and is scheduled to run for three years.

“Our lead VDC product candidate belzupacap sarotalocan [AU-011] is currently being developed for the first-line treatment of choroidal melanoma, a rare and life-threatening ocular cancer,” Aura says.

“Our goal is to treat small, early-stage choroidal melanoma, while preserving patients’ vision, before the disease progresses and metastasizes to the liver, where it is almost always fatal.”

According to a presentation at last year's Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO) conference, preliminary results from a Phase 1B/2 study showed that the AU-011 treatment was able to control tumor growth in more than two-thirds of patients - with vision preserved in more than 90 per cent of the cohort, including those with high-risk lesions close to the optic nerve.

Dual benefit
Aura’s CEO Elisabet de los Pinos, who worked in Eli Lilly’s oncology business prior to funding the company, said in a company release announcing the latest funding:

“Aura is pioneering the development of a new class of targeted therapies for life-threatening cancers with our novel VDC technology platform. This funding from a syndicate of distinguished investors enables us to advance AU-011 into a pivotal Phase 3 program for the first line treatment of choroidal melanoma, a rare, life- and vision-threatening form of cancer with no drugs approved.”

The support will also help the firm as it looks to expand the range of treatments possible with the VDC technology to a number of more common cancers.

Among the possibilities is a therapy for bladder cancer, where de los Pinos says there is currently a high unmet medical need for better targeted therapies to treat the disease early and stop it spreading to other parts of the body.

A key benefit of the novel approach, says Aura, is that it provides a dual benefit. After light activation with the near-infrared laser, the VDCs are said to generate high levels of reactive singlet oxygen free radicals that selectively destroy tumor cells through rapid cell membrane disruption.

This creates what the company describes as a “pro-immunogenic cell death” that simultaneously activates the immune system to generate an anti-tumor response.

“This dual mechanism of action provides a unique approach to enable the early treatment of the primary lesions, and to create a long-lasting anti-tumor immune response that may target both the primary tumor and prevent distant metastasis,” suggests the firm.

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