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Pan Cancer T: Erasmus MC spin-off develops innovative immunotherapy

Pan Cancer T is an innovative immunotherapy spin-off of Erasmus MC, located in the Erasmus MC Incubator in the Rotterdam Science Tower. The company’s products are based on TCR-T therapy, a form of T cell therapy that exploits the abilities of T cells, the primary natural immune effector cell, to recognize and kill tumor cells. This involves genetically modifying T cells to direct them against specific targets on tumor cells. Working on a unique set of targets, engineering T cells for enhanced durability, and successfully securing funds for further development, Pan Cancer T is on the verge to change immunotherapy.

Dora Hammerl is co-founder and VP Research & Discovery at Pan Cancer T, mainly involved in the preclinical research. Originally from Austria and with great experience working abroad, Hammerl ended up working in Rotterdam at Erasmus MC with Prof. Reno Debets at the Medical Oncology department. “What I’ve been working on was finding new targets for cancers not responding to standard treatment and not eligible for currently available T cell therapy. Such as triple-negative breast cancer, which is also the primary indication for our lead program.” Together with decades of pioneering adoptive T cell therapy at the Debets lab, the work and research Hammerl has done at Erasmus MC during her PhD and postdoc form the basis of Pan Cancer T. “Because we have actually developed an effective platform to discover new targets and corresponding T cell receptors (TCR), we thought: this is something that could be really useful for patients,” Hammerl says. “But the academic route isn’t always the most efficient or quickest, so Reno and I decided to start the company Pan Cancer T at the end of 2020.” In this process, the Erasmus MC Technology Transfer Office (TTO) got involved.

Rachel Abbott (left) and Dora Hammerl (right)

CEO Rachel Abbott joined the company in 2023, after working at various T-cell labs and TCR-T companies in the UK throughout her career. Having a background as T cell biologist, Abbott first joined as Chief Scientific Officer before being promoted to CEO in May 2023. “I thought the data looked really promising which was very exciting, and it gave me the opportunity to step into a bigger role,” she says about joining the company. “Being part of a new start-up also sounded like an interesting challenge.” Abbott decided to switch from research to industry in 2014, after her postdoc. “I was really interested in how T cells recognize and kill target cells, but wanted my research to be more translational and actually make a difference to patients in the clinic.”

Successfully securing funding

Pan Cancer T has recently been part of two successful grant applications, together with Debets from Erasmus MC  – a great achievement to further develop and expand the company’s products. The start-up received TKI funding by Health~Holland, a subsidy specifically for collaborative research projects with SMEs under the Public Private Partnership (PPP) framework. “This project accelerates the development of Pan Cancer T’s lead product, to finalize the preclinical safety and efficacy assays and make critical steps to bring our product to the clinic,” says Hammerl.

The second award Pan Cancer T was part of, is a grant from the KWF Dutch Cancer Society, with Debets as the main applicant and Pan Cancer T as the industrial partner. “This is on a different project that focuses more on the tumor microenvironment,” explains Hammerl. “Solid cancers are quite immunosuppressive and that is a big challenge we are trying to overcome.” The immunosuppressive environment can limit the effectiveness of T cell therapy and other immunotherapies. “We try to find regulators within the T cell and immunosuppressive macrophage axis to improve adoptive T cell therapy.” This project is very early stage, yet exciting for the company to support its academic development and its future exploitation, and ultimately bring it to the clinic and patients at a later stage.

The unique mission of Pan Cancer T

There are multiple companies trying to use the power of T cells to potentially cure cancers. What makes Pan Cancer T stand out? “There are two key things that differentiate us,” Abbott begins. “Pan Cancer T really focuses on novel targets that nobody else has got clinical programs for, as far as we’re aware, which enables us to treat different populations of patients.” Some might consider this high risk, but Pan Cancer T aims to find the best target for a particular patient set to develop a better product for that patient cohort. “We are also trying to tackle a particular problem posed by solid tumors. The hostile tumor microenvironment actively suppresses immune cells, including T cells. Often in clinical trials, T cell therapy initially shrinks tumors, but then the T cells get exhausted, and the tumor starts growing again. Together with the team at Erasmus MC, we have been working on different ways to try and overcome that. It is this combination of novel targets and additional engineering to overcome immune suppression, that makes us unique.”

Part of the Rotterdam ecosystem

As a start-up in Rotterdam, Pan Cancer T is developing rapidly. Abbott: “The Rotterdam ecosystem has been fundamental for us, particularly for the early financing coming from our investors Van Herk Ventures and Swanbridge Capital, who are both Rotterdam based.” Abbott says they are lucky to be in the position that the Erasmus MC supports them so well, effectively hosting them and investing in the company. “I also feel really lucky that we have the Science Tower as our official location, that we can use for example for meetings,” says Abbott. Hammerl adds: “At the moment we are still early stage, and we need the proximity, as we’re still in the Debets lab at Erasmus MC. But it’s great that within three metro stops, you can be at the Science Tower if you need to. It’s very convenient.”

What are they currently looking for in the network? “We would be happy to talk to anybody who would be interested in participating in a future financing round,” says Abbott. Pan Cancer T is actively fundraising to keep developing their innovative technology. If you are inspired by their mission and want to learn more, please take a look on their website and follow them on LinkedIn.

Date: July 5, 2024