A company in Sweden is engineering immune cells to fight cancer

Reagan Jarvis has spent his adult life studying the biochemical processes fundamental to life itself. During his postdoctoral studies, he had the chance to work on T-cells, a type of white blood cell that’s part of our immune system. Though he didn't know it at the time, this research would change his life.

© Anocca

Reagan Jarvis

“We wanted to create a biological system that could match the correct T-cells with a patient’s cancer cells and then, reprogramme their T-cells to target cancer,” says Jarvis, who is from New Zealand. “Usually, it takes years to develop such a system. But after sketching it out end-to-end on a napkin with my co-founder, we went straight to the lab and started working on it.”

Together with Mikael Blomkvist, a Swedish serial entrepreneur and investor, Jarvis set up Anocca in 2014 in Södertälje, Sweden. There, in state-of-the-art facilities, an international  team of highly skilled scientists is harnessing and manipulating T-cells to create the next generation of therapies and prophylaxis  in oncology, infectious disease, and autoimmunity.

“There is no one doing what we do, or on such a scale,” says Jarvis. ”Our molecular technologies, genetic tools, and advanced software enable us to develop treatments for more types of cancer and more patients than ever before.”

The European Investment Bank is supporting Anocca with €25 million in venture debt financing, signed in December 2022. The financing will help the company to begin clinical trials and speed up research activities.

“Anocca's technology could be the next big leap in immunotherapy, radically expanding the availability of next generation therapies to many more patients,” says Cristina Niculescu, a life sciences officer at the European Investment Bank, who worked on the deal.

What is a T-cell and how it can help fight cancer?

T-Cells – also called T-lymphocytes – are at the forefront of our immune system. They are our body’s “special-ops” team, helping detect new threats and arrange an appropriate immune response. “In essence T-cells sniff out and eliminate things in our bodies that are not ourselves, protecting us from infections and eliminating cancer cells,” Jarvis says.

Each T-cell gets a unique receptor, which can recognise foreign bodies, or known as antigens, and then conveys a signal to T-cells to induce an immune response. Our body produces many T-cells, each with thousands of specific receptors on its surface, to mount a fast response once an intruder is detected.

But T-cells are not always fully effective against cancer. A person may not have a T-cell with the right receptor, or these cells can stop working or wear themselves out, which allows the tumor to grow. To exit this dysfunctional state, these cells can be reprogrammed and rejuvenated to redirect the immune system so that it fights even the most advanced forms of cancer.

© Anocca

T cells can be distinguished from other lymphocytes by the presence of a T-cell receptor on their surface.

Anocca's technology makes this possible through the precise mapping of targets and targeting “receptors.” The company takes T-cells from the patient and engineers the receptors. It then re-introduces them into the body, equipped to recognise and kill cancer cells. “The engineered T-cells can identify and attack the cancer cells,” Jarvis says. ”This exquisite process of recognition is key to T-cells carrying out their central task, to precisely destroy cancer cells.”

Custom-made treatment for cancer patients

Each person posseses a unique composition of T-cell receptors. For this reason, it’s difficult to develop a treatment method that works for everyone.

Anocca produces tailored treatments for more types of tumours and a broader range of patients. The company will be able to offer personalised immunotherapies by choosing the right types of targets and matching T-cell receptors “As each person's immune system is unique, we need to find the right T-cell to ensure safe and effective treatment for each patient,” Jarvis says.

The company has developed a library of engineered T-cell receptors that can be used against:

  • specific genetic mutations that cause cancer
  • proteins that are produced in abnormal quantities or display altered expression patterns within tumor cells compared to normal, healthy cells, also known as mis-expressed proteins
  • viruses that cause cancer

“We are doing more than making a treatment, we are building a biopharmaceutical platform that delivers precision therapies with curative potential,” Jarvis says. “With our libraries of T-cell receptors for a diversity of cancer targets, we are offering a customised toolkit for each patient, or group of patients.”

Supporting innovation and biotech in Sweden

Pioneering companies like Anocca strengthen the European biotech ecosystem. With more than 100 people in its team, the company is working on the discovery, development and manufacture of cell therapies in Sweden.

© Anocca

Anocca runs a thriving BioStart apprenticeship program to identify and train promising young people with non-scientific backgrounds into a rewarding career in life sciences

“Science coming from European academic and research institutions is as strong, or even stronger, than that of the rest of the world,” says Niculescu, the European Investment Bank’s life sciences specialist. “But there is limited capital to start and grow companies, damaging the entrepreneurial spirit.”

The European Investment Bank’s financing of Anocca is one of the first InvestEU engagements in the Swedish life science sector and it will contribute to Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan, the European Union’s approach to cancer prevention, treatment, and care. InvestEU is an EU programme that aims to trigger more than €372 billion in additional investment in Europe from 2021 to 2027.

“Venture debt products give biotech companies and their research teams the necessary capital and time to continue to work on their innovation,” says Anna Stodolkiewicz, an investment officer at the European Investment Bank, who worked on the deal.

“Under this instrument, we have supported so far more than 100 European companies active in the life science sector.”

A scientific breakthrough in immunotherapies

Cancer is the second leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for nearly 10 million deaths in 2020, or nearly one in six deaths. This number is expected to increase in the coming decade.

Anocca’s innovation may change the way we treat cancer. “We are changing the paradigm by re-tooling our immune systems to precisely target cancer.” says Jacob Michlewicz, Anocca’s chief financial officer.

The technology will also have applications beyond oncology. With minimal effort, the platform can be configured to design and deploy personalised tumour vaccines, prophylactic vaccines for a wide range of pathogens, and “tolerization” treatments for autoimmune disease.