On what scientific foundations was the company started?
In the early 1990s, a series of publications placed immunology into the essential and promising fields of biomedical research in oncology. In parallel, we discovered molecular mechanisms controlling innate immunity and new receptors were characterized, opening up new perspectives on intervention. We were still in the infancy of innate immunity.
These pioneering scientists include the founders of Innate:
The late Alessandro Moretta and his team at the University of Genoa discovered the receptors responsible for the cytotoxic (killing) action of Natural Killer (NK) cells. Together with Eric Vivier, researcher at the Immunology Center of Marseille-Luminy, they elucidated the mechanisms of NK cell activation control and described the inhibitory receptors involved. These findings provided a molecular basis for the "missing self" hypothesis formulated by Klas Karre and paved the way for immunotherapy targeting NK cell checkpoints.
At the same time, Marc Bonneville and Jean-Jacques Fournié, researchers in Nantes and Toulouse respectively, described a new class of small molecule activating another type of unconventional lymphocyte, Gamma 9 Delta 2 T cells (TG9D2). More generally, the concept of the recognition by these lymphocytes undergoing metabolic stress, as may be the case during tumor transformations, emerged.
It was also at this time that James Allison, winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2018 for his contribution to immunotherapy, published the original articles on CTLA4 that almost 15 years later gave rise to the first immune checkpoint inhibitor, but, we were still very far off from treating patients.
We have known each other for a long time: Eric, Marc and Jean-Jacques and also François Romagné who, like me, had started his career at Immunotech, one of the first European biotechs and the first in Marseille. Eric naturally made the bridge with Alessandro. The emulation was there. So we decided to combine the two innate immunity arms - NK and TGD - to launch Innate Pharma together.
Can you summarize what Innate has done in 20 years?
There have been several phases in the history of Innate Pharma but at each point we have always tried to work in close partnership with the pharmaceutical industry, on the one hand, to access development capabilities to advance our drug candidates but also in a logic of learning to evolve faster - and of course to balance the financial risks of the R&D activity.
Obviously we stayed very close to academia, we built a strong network, relying on our founders, which allowed us to access to innovative research in immuno-oncology.
We chose to build a broad portfolio of several drug candidates, and perhaps move forward more slowly but never be dependent on a single program. Of course, we had to deal with the constraints of development and the financial constraints and limitations of a small organization but still by keeping many options open for partnership or proprietary development. This involved making choices and setting priorities which is often difficult. For example, we had to make the difficult choice not to pursue a promising TGD program in the clinic, but that would have required very large clinical trials to demonstrate efficacy. We preferred to prioritize programs targeting NK cell receptors, which proved to be a relevant choice in determining priorities several years later. Immunotherapy targeting TGD remains a very interesting path that will certainly bear fruit, even if it is not at Innate Pharma.
How about the progress made and the outlook for the company?
We had strong ambitions from the beginning. At the same time, we wanted to develop a broad portfolio with several drug candidates, establish partnerships with pharma, but also become a full-fledged biopharmaceutical company that designs, develops and markets medicines. We have tried to create the conditions that allow this maturation of the organization while maintaining high scientific ambitions. From this point of view, we are very proud of the progress we have made, notably thanks to Mondher Mahjoubi who took the reins of the company in early 2017. With his experience and knowledge, Mondher has enabled Innate to acquire from AstraZeneca its first commercial product, LumoxitiTM, now launched in the US. This has transformed Innate into a commercial company, that will also be able to commercialize its own products from its internal research in the future. The commercial strategy focuses on products targeting rare tumors, particularly in hematology. At the same time, with more than 200 employees today, Innate Pharma has established itself as a major player in research and innovation in immuno-oncology. The partnership with AstraZeneca also makes it possible to advance its programs in major indications of solid tumors by utilizing the development capabilities of our partner. As a founder, I am very pleased to see that Innate is following the path set as early as 1999, even though we did not have a clear idea of the itinerary, nor the time it would take!