Welcome to the Biotech Spotlight, a series featuring companies that are creating breakthrough technologies and products. Today, we’re looking at Immunocore, which is developing first-in-class biologics in oncology, autoimmune and infectious diseases.
In focus with: Bahija Jallal, CEO, Immunocore
Jallal’s vision: Two years after one of the most successful biotech IPOs in recent years and the global launch of its lead product Kimmtrak for uveal melanoma, Jallal rang the Nasdaq opening bell to mark the occasion.
Immunocore’s recent wins were anything but guaranteed at the time Jallal took over as CEO in 2019. The industry veteran was charged with turning around a company that had great science but was hampered by governance issues.
“I came to the organization because I followed the science — I saw an exciting platform and outstanding science,” she said. “The company was going through a lot of trouble, so that was a challenge, but it was worth it because of the science.”
During her 25-year career, Jallal has overseen the development of several cancer medications — including AstraZeneca’s Imfinzi and Lumoxiti, which spur the immune system into action — so she was impressed with Immunocore’s ImmTAX platform (immune mobilizing monoclonal TCRs against X disease) that is designed to overcome the immune system’s constraints.
At a glance: Immunocore is pioneering a “novel class of T cell receptor (TCR) bispecific immunotherapies” targeting a range of diseases, including certain cancers as well as infectious and autoimmune diseases. The biotech has one product on the market: Kimmtrak, approved by the FDA in February 2022 as the first and only therapy for “unresectable or metastatic uveal melanoma,” a rare type of eye cancer. In April 2023, the company reported the final analysis from the phase 2 trial M, after 46 months of follow-up, showing a median overall survival of 16.8 months — approximately double historical rates in this patient population. Later in 2023, Immunocore plans to provide an OS update from the phase 3 trial, for which, at the last analysis in 2020, the median OS was 21.7 months for patients treated with Kimmtrak, versus 16.0 months for those treated with investigator’s choice.
“I came to the organization because I followed the science — I saw an exciting platform and outstanding science."
The company is running multiple clinical studies with its second therapy franchise — PRAME — in a variety of cancers, including solid tumors such as cutaneous melanoma, ovarian, lung and endometrial, as well as pre-clinical candidates in solid tumors, including gastric, colorectal and pancreatic cancer.
Why it matters: Kimmtrak addresses a large unmet need in uveal melanoma, where treatment options have been limited to the surgical removal of the eye. Patients with the disease have a 50% risk of metastasis, which according to Jallal is impervious to chemotherapy.
“Once patients are diagnosed with the metastasis, it goes to the liver, and once it goes to the liver, patients basically have 12 months to live,” she said. “I remember I cried when I saw the data — just seeing the impact on patients and what we have accomplished is just amazing.”
Jallal spoke about what’s next for Immunocore, steps she took during the company’s turnaround and why she believes being a scientist and CEO is important to her success.
This interview has been edited for brevity and style.
PHARMAVOICE: What’s at the top of your list in terms of goals for this year?
BAHIJA JALLAL: We still have the obligation and the excitement to bring Kimmtrak to more patients, continuing on the successful launch and bringing Kimmtrak to patients that need it everywhere. So that’s really what we are doing.
While Kimmtrak is fully a melanoma target, we have the opportunity with PRAME, our second target to go into multiple tumor types and multiple solid tumors. We have already shown activity in phase 1 in multiple tumors. This year we are focusing on expansions into these tumor types. It is absolutely about execution this year to bring this very promising drug to patients.
We pioneered a new therapeutic modality and now we can’t just be complacent. We need to continue to innovate on the platform and make use of the data that we have from the clinic to understand and expand the platform even more.
Our ImmTAX platform has exciting potential as it has also the possibility to work in infectious diseases.
So now we are tackling infectious disease with two programs, HBV and HIV. Millions of people are living with HIV now, which is fantastic because it’s not a deadly disease anymore. However, they have to take their medicine every single day. So, there is an issue with compliance. There is an issue with drug-drug interactions if they have other diseases. And it’s just not an easy thing. The drugs on the market today control the viral replication really well. However, the virus hides in a reservoir and these are the CD4 T cells. So the minute the patient stops, it comes back with a vengeance. Our platform is so powerful, so potent that we believe we can get rid of that reservoir and if we succeed, it means hopefully we have a functional cure for HIV or HBV. And it opens up doors for us to tackle other viruses. That’s what’s really exciting. We showed very early data, but yes, the possibility is there.
Being a pioneer in the space, do you have folks knocking on your door looking to partner or even interested in purchasing you?
I can’t answer that question, but we’re always very open to collaborations because I believe that science and innovation doesn’t exist in one single institution. So we are always open to collaborate.
“I think it’s really important to say what you’re going to do and then continue to inform the board and the investors how you’re achieving what you said you can achieve."
Why did you decide to join Immunocore from AstraZeneca, where you were president of MedImmune?
I think the ‘a-ha’ moment was really talking to investigators and looking at the possibility of the company’s first drug and how it could help patients. The moment I decided to join this company was when I saw the positive first scans in liver metastasis. I knew from my experience that the liver is the hardest target, and I thought this is something really new that we can capitalize on through some really exciting science.
What was the turnaround process like?
When I first came to the company, there were two things that I said to investors. One is, I have the ability to turn around the company. Some believed it — some didn’t believe it. And, second, I came to the company because the science is amazing. We were starting a new therapeutic modality, which is amazing. Then I basically laid out what we are going to do. We don’t overpromise. I think it’s really important to say what you’re going to do and then continue to inform the board and the investors how you’re achieving what you said you can achieve.
I have to admit it was not easy to turn around the company, especially a year into COVID. That was even harder because we have a global footprint.
The one thing we did at the very beginning was define our values. The first was to put patients first. And it really helped us during COVID to make decisions, and it was not easy.
The second thing was to do what I call the deep dives — meaning in every section in the company I wanted to understand fully what was going on. Before making any decisions, I did deep dives on everything.
The third thing that was really important — and I was lucky — was to have a team who worked with me before to join me here mostly in the clinic.
After the deep dives, we basically restructured the company, hired the right talent and took care of the governance. We made some changes at the board. And ultimately that helped me set the strategic plan for the company.
Did COVID slow you down at all?
I don’t think so. I am so proud of the organization. We were lucky because we got the data right at the beginning of COVID, so having that motivation gave us something to really live for.
We actually did the IPO – I joke about it, but it was true — from my basement. We did the series C and the IPO all from my basement.
Do you think your scientific background has given you an edge as a CEO since this is such a strong science company?
One hundred percent, I absolutely believe it. I used to say, you wouldn’t ask a scientist to run a bank. I think in biotech, our business is science. You have to understand the science — otherwise it would be really tough to go deeply into everything a company does.