newlink-genetics-logo-150px.jpgNewLink Genetics, an Ames, Iowa, biotech working on cancer vaccines and drugs that modulate the immune system, has so far raised about $17 million in a third funding round. The company aims to raise another $8 million in the round for a total of $25 million, according to Nicholas Vahanian, the company’s chief medical and operating officer.

In an unusual approach for a startup, NewLink is pursuing two different, but potentially related, approaches to treating cancer. The first is a therapeutic cancer vaccine designed to stimulate the immune system into attacking tumor cells, which the body’s defenses normally ignore. NewLink has identified a particular protein called a(1, 3)-Galactosyl (alpha-Gal, for short) that normally stimulates an extremely potent immune reaction.

By genetically engineering lines of cancer cells to produce that protein, the company’s scientists intend to make the cells highly “visible” to the immune system. The hope is that the body’s defenders will generate antibodies and other potent molecular weapons that will attack not only the engineered cells, but other cancer cells in the body. NewLink’s cancer vaccine is currently in mid-stage, phase II trials in lung and pancreatic cancer. Vahanian said the early data is “promising,” but declined to go into specifics until the current trials produce interim results, which may happen as soon as early next year.

The company’s second approach involves a small-molecule drug, 1MT, that inhibits an enzyme called indoleamine,-2,3-dioxygenase, or IDO. This enzyme normally down-regulates the immune system — technically, it degrades the amino acid tryptophan in the immune-system’s dendritic cells, setting off a chain of events that disarm certain of the body’s defensive components.

Inhibiting IDO should therefore improve immune response, making 1MT a potentially useful in combination with traditional chemotherapy drugs, which often have immunosuppressive side effects of their own. (Vahanian says the company’s researchers believe that chemo drugs are effective in part because they trigger immune responses.) NewLink is testing the drug as a single agent against a variety of tumors in an early-stage, phase I trial, which could complete enrollment by this fall.

Investors in the round included Iowa Capital Group, Ames Seed Capital, Chicagoland Investors, Midwest Oilseeds and NLG Advisors. NewLink has roughly 50 employees and was founded in 1999. The company has also received a non-equity, forgiveable loan from Iowa’s Department of Economic Development, Vahanian said.