With EUR 29.25 million of funding behind it, the biotech company Rigontec is launching its first clinical study to test a new active substance to fight cancer. The unique thing about this drug is that it programs the body's immune system to identify tumour cells as harmful and then kill them.
Young people in white lab coats sit in front of apparatus and test tubes at the Innovation and Start-Up Center for Biotechnology in Munich. Although a few boxes have yet to be unpacked, the atmosphere at the Rigontec is brimming with energy.
Rigontec specialises in drugs research with a focus on cancer immunotherapy. In contrast to chemotherapy or radiation therapy, this involves special active substances that mobilise the patient's immune system in its battle against the disease. They activate all immune and body cells – even the cancerous ones. The latter will eventually die by natural cell death. "The therapeutic agents make the cancer cells turn on themselves," says Christian Schetter, CEO of Rigontec GmbH and a doctor in molecular biology.
While immunotherapy against cancer has been known for decades, it has only been showing any success for about ten years. Just a few years ago, the leading US research magazine "Science" announced the "break-through of the year" in this segment. Nowadays, all of the major pharmaceutical companies want to have immunotherapeutic agents in their portfolios. If the active substance produced by Rigontec is actually launched on the market, the money invested in the company will earn large returns for all of its investors.
At the moment, investments have reached EUR 29.25 million in total. This is how much Rigontec raised in an "extended" Series A financing round, i.e. exclusively from professional venture capital investors, including major industry players like Forbion Capital Partners, Boehringer Ingelheim Venture Funds, High-Tech Start-Up Fund (HTGF), NRW.BANK, MP Healthcare Venture Management, Sunstone Capital and Wellington Partners Life Sciences. KfW invests in venture capital funds to strengthen Germany as a location for technology companies and is now supporting Forbion's involvement. KfW has also joined the German Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy as the second public donor to the HTGF.
"Our investors took a great risk," the CEO says. Because if the drug flops, they will lose their money. What is more, even if the drug is a success, they may have to wait years for any returns. German investors, who typically invest in real estate, tend to consider this type of investment too risky. EUR 29.25 million is therefore an exceptionally high amount for a start-up in Germany. "But our investors are also driven by the motivation to advance clinical research that could save many lives."
Christian Schetter knows something about the successes and failures of biotech start-ups from his own experience. Prior to his current role, he was CEO of Fresenius Biotech GmbH for six years. The new anti-cancer medicine launched by the company even received an award. Under Schetter's guidance, Fresenius managed to successfully sell its biotech arm. Prior to that, he was a member of the management team at Coley Pharmaceutical – a company that owes its name to William Coley, a pioneer in cancer immunotherapy. The company no longer exists: "Unfortunately our medicine failed in an important study for several reasons." But ten years of research were not for nothing: in 2007, the company was bought by the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.
It's a small world in cancer immunotherapy. One of the scientists behind the research results at Coley Pharmaceutical, for example, is Gunther Hartmann, Professor at the Institute of Clinical Chemistry and Clinical Pharmacology at the University Clinic Bonn.
He is one of the founders of Rigontec. Another of the founders is Professor Veit Hornung of the Institute of Molecular Medicine in Bonn.Together with their team, they were researching RIG-I, a receptor of the immune system.
As soon as certain viruses enter our body, RIG-I activates our defensive forces. The scientists discovered how RIG-I identifies the viruses. "The receptor recognises their RNA, a DNA copy that usually transforms genetic information into proteins," says Schetter. RIG-I takes advantage of the special characteristics of the viral RNA. As the receptor exists in all cell types – including cancer cells – the scientists wanted to use their discovery to combat cancer. To do this, they founded Rigontec, named after RIG-I, in January 2014. Professor Hartmann is now on the Supervisory Board, while Professor Hornung acts as one of the company's scientific advisors. Rigontec is now based in both Munich and Cambridge, USA.
Since it was first founded, Rigontec has done more than just raise a further EUR 15 million in venture capital for advancing candidate drugs; it has also opened a branch in the US city of Cambridge and expanded its management team. As Rigontec's Chief Medical Officer (CMO), Eugen Leo is in charge of developing clinical studies while the Chief Scientific Officer (CSO) Jörg Vollmer advances Rigontec's technology in pre-clinical programmes. Both men have previously held posts relating to cancer immunotherapy at various pharmaceutical and biotech firms.
"Our active substance imitates the virus RNA. In contrast to the virus, however, it is not pathogenic," explains Christian Schetter. "If this RNA is entered into the tumours, the RIG-I will recognise them and drive the tumour cells to natural cell death. At the same time, the patient's immune system is programmed to fight the tumour cells, much like a software." Rigontec's active substance is highly precise: "Our active substance RGT100 activates only RIG-I and therefore just one immunoreceptor. This minimises the therapy's side effects." The technology has a wide area of application, meaning that it could be used to treat various types of tumour, but also other types of metastasising tumours. The scientists have even managed to gather data showing that the new therapeutic agents generate an immune memory. As a result, patients may also be protected against new tumours from forming over the long term.
The Rigontec team's task is now to transform the active substances into marketable therapeutics. Rigontec got the ball rolling at the beginning of this year by launching the first clinical study with the leading candidate drug RGT100. The first clinical tests in Phase I/II will take at least two years before the mechanism of action is expected to show preliminary positive results with patients.
Of course, parallel research will continue to run alongside as the activation of the RIG-I receptor is not just an exciting approach for cancer immunotherapy; it can also help to combat other infections as well. The CEO does not want to speculate on whether or not the company will one day be listed on the stock exchange: "That would be a great success, but there are
The described project contributes to the following United Nationsʼ Sustainable Development Goals
Goal 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
Health is the goal, prerequisite and result of sustainable development. Supporting health is a humanitarian requirement – both in developed and developing countries. Around 39 per cent of the worldʼs population lives without health insurance. In poor countries, this amount even exceeds 90 per cent. Many people still die from diseases that are not necessarily fatal with the right treatment, or that could easily be prevented with vaccinations. Strengthening health systems, particularly by making vaccines widely available, can make it possible for us to drive these diseases back and even eradicate them by 2030.
All United Nations member states adopted the 2030 Agenda in 2015. At its heart is a list of 17 goals for sustainable development, known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Our world should become a place where people are able to live in peace with each other in ways that are ecologically compatible, socially just, and economically effective.
Last updated: Thursday, 7 February 2019