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Pheast’s new CEO on how its ‘don’t eat me’ platform could deliver next-gen precision immunotherapies

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Welcome to First 90 Days, a series dedicated to examining how pharma executives are planning for success in their new roles. Today, we’re looking at Pheast Therapeutics’ CEO, Jacopo Leonardi, who is leading a team of next-generation scientists to unlock the potential of macrophages to address hard to treat cancers.

Jacopo Leonardi is in “pheast” mode. As CEO of Pheast Therapeutics, Leonardi and his team are intent on “cracking the code on difficult to treat cancers” with a breakthrough macrophage platform.

After C-suite and executive roles at Horizon, Baxter and Baxalta, Leonardi is optimistic about his new role at Pheast, which he assumed in January 2023. He takes over for one of the principal founders Dr. Amira Barkal, who launched the company with Roy Maute amd two other colleagues less than a year ago with backing from Arch Ventures and Catalio Capital Management.

Jacopo Leonardi, CEO, Pheast Therapeutics

Permission granted by Jacopo Leonardi


“I feel a great sense of purpose with this group to build a purpose-driven, high-performing immuno-oncology company with a diverse pipeline of breakthrough therapies to help as many patients as possible who are impacted by difficult to treat cancers,” Leonardi said.

The company’s focus is on immunotherapies that block a “don’t eat me” signal, including CD24 expressed on cancer cells. Barkal elucidated the role of CD24 in her dissertation research, which expanded on the earlier work pioneered by company co-founders Dr. Irving Weissman and Dr. Ravi Majeti around the CD47 molecule.

The company’s platform is designed to harness the innate immune system to fight cancer through the macrophage, an immune cell found in tumors that acts like a “Pac-Man” gobbling up damaged cells and destroying them through a process called “phagocytosis.”

“Cancer is quite devious, it creates ways to protect itself from the immune system,” Leonardi said. “The immune system, specifically the first responder macrophages, want to eat abnormal cells. But cancer cells grow quickly and develop something like an armor that sends signals to tell the macrophages ‘don’t eat me.’ Our specific program is focused on blocking that ‘don’t eat me’ signal so that macrophages can ‘feast on cancer.’”

Leonardi said the early-stage company is already “seeing some potential in ovarian cancer and breast cancer,” which is just the start of the novel targets they expect to generate against difficult to treat cancers.

Here, Leonardi discusses how he plans to help the company harness the power of macrophages, his approach to building high-performing teams and the near- and longer-term goals for Pheast.

The conversation has been edited for brevity and style.

PHARMAVOICE: You have vast industry experience. What drew you to Pheast?

JACOPO LEONARDI: As I was doing my homework into the company, I thought the breakthrough research into macrophage biology was a hidden gem. I was excited to work with the deep scientific experts in innate immunity and immuno-oncology. We have a team of almost 15 scientists now and they’re incredible. They’re humble, they’re hungry, they’re relentless. They’re next generation scientists. They’re collaborative. They’ve got tremendous independent thinking and the courage to be exceptional. They’re fearless.

Second, I love to coach, develop and mentor folks. Because they’re just so bright and talented, to even be a small part of their journey is very humbling. I want to bring out the very best in each person on the team and bring them together as an incredibly high-performing team so that we can all be at our best and help crack the code on difficult to treat cancers.

You took over the CEO role from Dr. Bakal. How are you going to make the role your own?

I always approach every opportunity with tremendous humility and a willingness to learn. In terms of defining how I would make this role my own, part of it is just being authentic to who I am and how I can make an impact. I always start with what is our core purpose, why do we get up every day. The team’s been able to do a great job at defining that.

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