Aura raises $80m to develop its virus-like cancer drugs

US biotech Aura Biosciences has closed an oversubscribed financing, raising $80 million to help take its lead virus-like drug conjugate (VDC) for a cancer that affects the eye into late-stage development.

The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company is currently testing belzupacap sarotalocan (AU-011) in a phase 2 trial involving patients with choroidal melanoma, a tumour that develops in the back of the eye that can cause vision loss and is almost invariably fatal if it spreads to other parts of the body.

The tumours tend to be slow-growing, and current treatment is radiation or surgery. There are no specific therapies for choroidal melanoma approved by the FDA.

Last year, Aura reported the first results from the study at the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO) congress which found that injections AU-011 was safe and well-tolerated and showed preliminary evidence of efficacy.

The treatment – which involves injection of AU-011 into the choroid of the eye (a spongy layer between the retina and sclera) followed by activation with an ophthalmic laser – was able to control tumour growth in more than 65% of patients and helped to preserve vision in more than 90%.

The VDC also achieved a statistically significant reduction in the tumour growth rate among patients whose tumours were already growing at enrolment into the trial.

The VDC platform takes the form of a virus-like particle (VLPs) that bind selectively to proteins that are found on the surface of tumour cells but not on normal, healthy cells, which are joined to drug molecules that enhance their cancer-killing activity.

In the case of AU-011,  the VLPs are conjugated to an infrared dye called IRDye 700DX that when exposed to a laser causes direct damage to malignant cells and activates an immune response to the tumour, without damaging the healthy structures in the eye.

Aura has already discussed the design of a phase 3 trial with the FDA, and reckons that with just 67 patients and a two-year follow-up period it should be able to generate data that could support approval.

“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,” said the biotech’s CEO Elisabet de los Pinos.

“It also allows us to continue to expand the reach of our VDC technology in additional ocular oncology indications and in the treatment of solid tumours like bladder cancer,” she added.

The financing was led by Matrix Capital Management and Surveyor Capital with participation from new investors, including Rock Springs Capital, Adage Capital Management LP and Velocity Capital.

Existing backers Medicxi, Advent Life Sciences, Lundbeckfonden Ventures, Arix Bioscience, Chiesi Ventures, Ysios Capital and Columbus Venture Partners also participated in the round.

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