OncoMed Gets $18M Boost

Jim Woody is supposed to be retired, enjoying a life of sailing and lethargy. Instead, he’s trying to cure cancer.

Woody is the founding CEO of OncoMed Pharmaceuticals Inc., a venture-backed startup that believes it can prevent the spread of solid tumors. He retired from Roche Bioscience in Palo Alto a couple of years ago, soon after which he agreed to a one-day-per-week position with Latterell Venture Partners.

The job soon turned into two days per week, after which company founder Pat Latterell asked Woody if he’d be willing to run a company, if the right one came along. That company was OncoMed, and Woody’s retirement was placed on indefinite hold.

To support its R&D, Menlo Park, Calif.-based OncoMed in August scored $17.65 million in Series A funding commitments from Latterell Venture Partners (which led the deal), Morgenthaler Ventures, U.S. Venture Partners and The Vertical Group.

The company immediately called down $5.88 million, and grabbed an additional $8 million last week.

The company does not have firm funding plans beyond a final Series A call-down, but it is safe to expect both a Series B deal and some sort of strategic partnership with a larger pharma company.

“OncoMed is based on a fundamental discovery about what drives cancer,” Woody says. “It’s a paradigm shift in how we understand the biology… which made it too exciting not to want to be involved.”

The discovery was made by University of Michigan researchers Michael Clarke and Max Wicha (Clarke will join Stanford University next month), who separated a tiny population of chemotherapy-resistant cells from a breast tumor.

They then placed the cells in Petri dishes, and watched them self-renew for a long period of time, basically growing the cancer on their own.

They described the cells as “cancer stem cells,” borrowing a term from Stanford researchers who had discovered the same thing in a leukemia study.

Although the cells may not be recognized under the clinical definition of stem cells (adult, not embryonic), they act similarly, except that they promulgate something bad instead of something good.

The goal of OncoMed is to identify and target cancer stem cells to create antibodies and/or small molecule drugs that would prevent tumor growth. The identification process is difficult – cancer stem cells look a lot like regular “good” stem cells – but Woody says that the company has found 50 cell surface antigens over-expressed on cancer stem cells, which means that it now must choose which ones to target first.

He says that lead candidates should begin Phase II clinical trials in about two years, which would mean anticipated commercialization in five years.

“Cancer stem cells are generating interest today from both big and small companies, because the science is now so convincing,” says Jim Broderick, a general partner with Morgenthaler Ventures and an OncoMed board member. “What we have here is a strong team that understands the biological breakthrough and the path to clinical products.”