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This biotech’s saga could only start in Skåne

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Asgard Therapeutics is a biotech company with legendary ambitions and a name borrowed from Norse mythology to match. Aiming to develop a new generation of cancer immunotherapies, the Lund-based startup found crucial support in the Skåne region during its initial stages. In fact, a boosted profile by Invest in Skåne may have played some part in Asgard’s almost mythical seed capital funding round, which closed in late 2021 at 6 million euros.

Founded in 2018, Asgard Therapeutics grew out of a research project in cellular reprogramming at Lund University among co-founders Cristiana Pires, Fábio Rosa, and Filipe Pereira.

Cristiana Pires

“We hypothesised that we could modulate the identity of cells to induce conversions towards immune cells, opening up the opportunity to manipulate the immune system,” explains Pires, who is now the company’s CEO.

Cutting-edge science with names from myths and legends

The concept is the basis for a unique gene therapy approach with potential application in the treatment of different forms of solid tumours. They named it “TrojanDC” in reference to the story of the Trojan horse, which parallels how the technique enters the cancer cells and reprograms them to induce an attack from the body's immune system against themselves. 

As their research developed, including publication in the prestigious journal Science Immunology, the trio decided to create a company around the TrojanDC approach. They chose another legendary name that was remarkably fitting for a group of Portuguese scientists who’d moved up north to Sweden.

“As tumours progress, cancer cells develop mechanisms to become invisible to attacks from the immune system. By reprogramming them, we’re forcing them to become highly ‘immunogenic’, which means they’re highly detectable,” says Pires.

Making the invisible cancer cell visible

What makes the approach by Asgard Therapeutics so groundbreaking is that while other immunotherapies for cancer typically focus on stimulating certain cells of the immune system (like T cells) to fight the disease, the innovation behind TrojanDC targets cancer cells themselves. The goal is still to provoke an immune response, but by making the cancer cells much more noticeable to a patient’s immune system.

“As tumours progress, cancer cells develop mechanisms to become invisible to attacks from the immune system. By reprogramming them, we’re forcing them to become highly ‘immunogenic’, which means they’re highly detectable,” says Pires.

But being able to create breakthrough biotech doesn’t automatically mean that you’ll be able to build a successful business. Thankfully, there are advantages to launching a startup in Skåne. Not only did Asgard’s founders receive support in applying for early grants, but they also received assistance with everything from accounting to legal advice for registering a business through Lund University Innovation and LU Holding. The team won several awards and grants and eventually joined one of the region’s life science incubators, SmiLe. All of which helped ease early financial risks.

“In other places, if you want to start a company, you need to set up your own lab from scratch. It takes a lot of money. It's also more of a risk to set up all the infrastructure alone,” says Pires.

When Ulrika Mårtensson from Invest in Skåne reached out to offer support, Asgard became part of the agency’s Biotech pipeline — a presentation that highlights the region’s notable biotech companies to potential investors.   

How Invest in Skåne helped

Eventually, Asgard Therapeutics was ready to raise seed funding. The funding round proved to be very successful, raising EUR 6 million from international investments before closing in November 2021. The funding was co-led by three firms: Novo Holdings in Denmark, Boehringer Ingelheim Venture Fund in Germany, and Industrifonden in Sweden. Two of those investors had been in touch with Invest in Skåne, receiving the Biotech pipeline featuring Asgard Therapeutics and its innovative gene therapy approach.

“I think being included in the Biotech pipeline played a critical role in helping increase awareness of the company. I was attending several business meetings and reaching out to investors, but there's only so much one person can do,” says Pires. “Being visible in the Biotech pipeline increased the number of investors that heard about Asgard and facilitated new introductions — to have that kind of reinforcement about Asgard from another party helps a lot.”

According to Pires, the seed funding has enabled Asgard Therapeutics to open a lab at SmiLe, hire staff to develop preclinical studies for TrojanDC and bring the immunotherapy another step closer to clinical trials.

“We have proof of principle that both mouse and human cancer cells, including primary cells from patients, can be reprogrammed and become more immunogenic,” she says. “And now, with this seed round, the aim is to build the team and advance the preclinical development of TrojanDC along with other pipeline programs.”