“Maps are the most condensed humanized spaces of all…They make the landscape fit indoors, make us masters of sights we can’t see and spaces we can’t cover.” — Robert Harbison, Professor of Architecture
Cancer, which uses genetic mutations to turn our own cells into turncoats, has been described as “the enemy within.” And it remains a formidable enemy. Nearly 1.75 million new cases of cancer are diagnosed and over 600,000 succumb to the disease every year in the United States. Despite meaningful advances in treating and managing the disease, the National Cancer Institute estimates that there are over 15 million cancer survivors living today and that nearly 40 percent of Americans will be touched by it in their lifetime. The war on cancer rages on.
One of the more promising strategies has been the emergence of cancer immunotherapy, a form of treatment that uses the body’s own immune system to recognize and attack cancer cells. CAR T-cell therapy (a type of engineered immune cell) has had a profound impact on treating liquid (blood) tumors — Emily Whitehead, the first child to receive this therapy, was cured from an aggressive form of leukemia and recently celebrated 10 years of being cancer-free. And there are ongoing efforts to develop these cell therapies against solid (organ) tumors as well. Beyond cell therapies, there is an expanding arsenal of novel therapeutic modalities like bispecific antibodies, immune checkpoint inhibitors and even vaccines that are all being developed to target a broad range of cancers.
But, because cancer cells originate from our own healthy cells, figuring out exactly how to differentially target cancer cells from healthy cells is one of the critical, overarching challenges for cancer immunotherapy — all of these therapies need to hit molecular targets that will help elicit a strong immune response against cancer cells, but must not be present on healthy cells so as not to cause collateral damage in the form of toxicity. Even if a molecular target has the potential to be clinically relevant for a cancer immunotherapy, it also needs to be present across a sufficiently large patient population to be commercially viable to develop in the first place.
This incredibly complex nature of the underlying biology — the heterogeneous nature of cancer and the abundance of targets expressed across normal cell types — has resulted in a dearth of compelling novel targets for cancer immunotherapy. Despite the explosion of new therapeutic modalities, successes to date for cancer immunotherapy have been limited to a handful of well-validated molecular targets like CD19 and BCMA that are relevant in just a subset of cancers. We have powerful hammers, we just need to find more and better nails in order to deliver on the full promise and potential of cancer immunotherapy.
My first in-person meeting with the founders of Cartography — CEO Kevin Parker and Stanford physician-scientists and entrepreneurs Ansu Satpathy and Howard Chang — was around an outdoor firepit in the middle of the pandemic (precautions were taken to ensure we could meet safely). We spent the evening talking about how technologies like single-cell sequencing and computational analyses would revolutionize our understanding of the cancer target landscape — and how Cartography would chart the course. In addition to Kevin, Ansu and Howard, this founding scientific team includes Max Mumbach, Caleb Lareau and Jeffrey Verboon as well as a seasoned Scientific Advisory Board headed by CAR T pioneer Carl June along with Joe Fraietta, Emma Lundberg and Angela Shen. This crew of experienced cartographers has already published extensively on their early map-making efforts.
By bridging the worlds of biology and computation, Cartography is building a comprehensive atlas that will reveal the impact that any given target may have not just on cancer cells, but also on normal cells throughout the body. Cartography’s modality-agnostic platform has the potential to discover novel targets for cancers we can’t currently treat and create therapeutics across a range of modalities that are specific enough to hit tumor cells, broad enough to target all cells in a patient’s tumor, and safe enough to minimize toxic side effects — in other words, it’s a nail-finding machine for cancer immunotherapy.
Cartography is launching with $57 million to turn the process of identifying targets from what was once a game of chance into a systematic science — to deliver on its mission to build a platform that will create more precise and effective immunotherapies. a16z was thrilled to lead the company’s seed round, to participate in the recent Series A financing led by 8VC and to work with this extraordinary group of investors, including Wing VC, Catalio, Artis, Alexandria, AME Cloud Ventures, Gaingels and the Cancer Research Institute.