UPMC launches cancer drug discovery company

Pittsburgh-based UPMC has launched a drug discovery and development company focused on cancer treatments.

Called Novasenta, the company’s work will concentrate on the tumor microenvironment — that is, the ecosystem inside the body that surrounds and interacts with the tumor — to develop immunotherapies. It will leverage a proprietary platform that can apply cell analyses, animal models and machine learning to help discover novel targets for drug development.

The company is currently focused on T-cell targets and aims to launch its first clinical trial by the end of 2023.

Novasenta, which is also based in Pittsburgh, was founded in 2018 by Dr. Robert Ferris, Dario Vignali and Greg Delgoffe, who all work at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center and University of Pittsburgh. It is one of three local life science start-ups incubated by UPMC Enterprises in collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh over the last four years.

“We are building on decades of successful research from our founders in the fields of tumor biology, immunology, computational biology and drug discovery,” said Mani Mohindru, the recently hired CEO of Novasenta, in a news release. “Our expanding team brings a broad set of skills and expertise to our unique platform, allowing us to integrate a wide range of relevant disease data into our discovery and validation processes to develop more effective cancer therapies.” Mohindru has prior experience in leadership roles at biopharma companies CereXis and Cara Therapeutics.

UPMC invested in Novasenta through the health system’s innovation and venture capital arm, UPMC Enterprises, in a $20 million seed round.

Novasenta will compete in a crowded, but rapidly growing arena. The global oncology drugs market was valued at about $128 billion in 2019 and is projected to reach $222 billion by 2027, according to an Allied Market Research report published earlier this year.

Several startups and companies in the cancer biotech space have raised millions in funding this year, including Janux Therapeutics that gained $125 million in a Series B financing round a few months ago.

Not to mention, Pfizer’s big bet on Trillium Therapeutics — a clinical-stage biotech company that is taking a novel approach to cancer immunotherapy — which it acquired for $2.3 billion.

Photo: metamorworks, Getty Images