Immunotherapy firm Immunocore, which started life at Oxford University, raises the largest biotech round in European history.

Immunocore, an immunotherapy firm which has its origins at Oxford University, has secured the largest European life sciences fundraising round ever at $320m.

The Oxford-based biotech raised the cash from pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, life sciences investor Malin, RTW Investments, a number of new and existing private backers of Immunocore, and Woodford Investment Management, which led the round jointly with Malin and is one of renowned British investor Neil Woodford’s two ongoing funds. Between them, Woodford and Malin provided $80m of the total. The round marks the sole fundraising held for Immunocore since it became its own company in 2008.

The round is not only Europe’s largest, but the second biggest life sciences round worldwide. Only Moderna Therapeutics, a US-based life sciences firm developing messenger RNA therapeutics which can be used to quickly map out a new or existing pathogen’s genome and produce an antibody to kill it, has raised a bigger round with $450m announced at the start of the year. Immunocore’s round bumps Reliant Pharmaceuticals’ $273.7m into third place, followed by Jazz Phamaceuticals at $250m and Intrexon at $200m.

Immunocore already has several agreements with high profile pharmaceutical firms in place, including GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Genentech, and Medimmune, the research and development unit of AstraZeneca. In 2013, GSK contributed $222m to for pre-clinical rights to drugs Immunocore is working on. In the same year, the firm agreed to a similar deal with Genentech with an upfront payment between $10m to $20m with over $300m in milestone payments on the table. In 2014, Immunocore entered a research and licensing collaboration agreement with Medimmune, where the Oxford firm received $20m in upfront payments and a further $300m in development and commercial milestone payments with further royalty payments dependent on success.

The firm is a sister company of Adaptimmune, another immunotherapy company originating from Oxford which raised $104m in its series A last year and held an IPO worth $191m in April. The two firms originally come from Avidex, an Oxford University firm spun out of the institution in 1999. Avidex would go on to be acquired by German Medigene in 2006 which would later spin out Immunocore in 2008.

Similar to Adaptimmune, Immunocore is working on cancer-focused immunotherapies based around genetically-altered T cells. In immunotherapy, T cells are removed from a patient’s body, adapted to be able to identify and kill cancer (and can also be used for infectious diseases) before being reintegrated with the patient. Upon infusion, the cells can then find and attack tumours that the immune system would have previously missed.

The technology has proven hugely successful in trials, with immunotherapy companies reporting high rates of complete remission in patients, even in those previously thought terminal. One market leader, US-based Juno Therapeutics, has seen complete remission in 88% of its patients in its Phase I/II trials, and immunotherapy trials conducted by Pennsylvania University have reported patients previously terminal who are walking around cancer-free five years later.

Subsequently, investor enthusiasm has soared in recent years for the immunotherapy market, which could potentially be worth $35bn per annum in a decade’s time. Juno raised $176m in its series A, followed by $134m in a series B and a $265m IPO all achieved within a year of the company launching. Since going public, there were fears that immunotherapy investment was cooling off, which were quelled earlier this month when biotech Celgene agreed to invest a further $1bn into Juno, paying $93m per share or $850m over a ten-year deal and $150m in upfront payments. Kite Pharma, a peer of Juno and a spin-out of University of California Los Angeles, saw its own shares jump 10% on the news. Kite has also had strong fundraising success, raising $35m in its series A and $128m in an IPO held last year.

Immunocore isn’t the only bet Woodford has placed on a university-linked immunotherapy firm. Woodford Investment Management joined Invesco and Imperial Innovations – the technology transfer office of Imperial College London – in backing Cell Medica, a company formed by Innovations in 2007, when it held its series B worth $79m last year.

Multiple university and research institute spinouts are following in the footsteps of Juno, Immunocore, Cell Medica, and Kite. Oxford itself yesterday launched yet another immunotherapy firm, iOx Therapeutics, in partnership with Ludwig Cancer Research. Medical University of Innsbruck launched ViraTherapeutics last month with $4m in series A backing. Sapvax, an Auckland University spinout, recently launched and is currently searching for $8m to get it off the ground. Victoria University partnered Malaghan Institute of Medical Research to launch Avalia in May, which has already attracted a solid consortium of backers. Fred Hutchinson, one of the three institutes behind Juno, saw another one of its immunotherapy firms, Adaptive Biotechnologies, raise $195m in the same month. And University College London joined the hunt at the start of the year, launching Autolus with $45m in backing.

The Immunocore, Cell Medica, and Adaptimmune successes could be a boon for Autolus and iOx in particular as it would appear the same enthusiasm which has benefitted Juno, Kite, and Adaptive has found its way across the Atlantic – especially when the large funds raised by Oxford Sciences Innovation, Malin, and Woodford Patient Capital Trust are taken into account.

According to reporting by the Financial Times, Immunocore’s round will not give Eli Lilly special rights to Immunocore’s intellectual property, which has kept its most valuable technology away from the deals with the other pharmaceutical giants. The round also sets Immunocore development up for the next three to five years, and gives the company the choice between remaining private or holding an IPO. If it goes public, it is thought Immunocore will list in London owing to its CEO Eliot Forster’s links to London Mayor Boris Johnson’s MedCity programme, of which Forster is head.

Commenting on the deal, Forster said: “Our new investors include some of the most highly regarded international institutions in the healthcare sector. We believe this is another endorsement of our technology, our novel class of TCR based biologic therapies, of our mission to build a world-leading biotechnology company and of the outstanding scientists at Immunocore. This funding will be invaluable in assisting us to continue the rapid advancement of IMCgp100 in the clinic and the further development of our internal portfolio of ImmTACs. This supports us in our mission to build a premier biotech company based on our ImmTAC technology platform.”