Ooh...Pfizer Did it Again, Ties It Up With a Startup and Spinout

Published: Sep 09, 2016

Ooh...Pfizer Did it Again, Ties It Up With a Startup and Spinout September 8, 2016
By Mark Terry, BioSpace.com Breaking News Staff

Pfizer recently took a stake in a biotech startup, Western Oncolytics, which spun out of the University of Pittsburgh.

Western Oncolytics was launched out of the research of Stephen Thorne, who is the company’s scientific advisor. The company’s lead product, WO-12, is an immune-oncolytic, a virus engineered to replicate inside cancer cells, while delivering several genes that will help fight cancer.

Western Oncolytics initially raised $2.5 million from internal investors prior to Pfizer’s investment, which remains undisclosed. On July 28, Pfizer and Western Oncolytics announced a development collaboration, license and option agreement. Under the deal, they will collaborate on preclinical and clinical development of WO-12 through Phase I clinical trials. Once those are completed, Pfizer has an exclusive option to buy WO-12.

“Our goal is to combine WO-12 with our portfolio of promising investigational immunotherapies to explore how these novel combinations could help further enhance the body’s immune response in fighting cancer cells,” said James Merson, Pfizer’s chief scientific officer, Vaccine Immunotherapeutics, in a statement. “We believe that the real advances in immune-oncology will come from novel combinations, and cancer fighting viruses and vaccines could play a key role in helping transform cancer treatment and potentially enable us to treat more patients.”

WO-12 and oncolytics appears to fall into the area of immune-oncology, in which the immune system is engineered to fight cancer cells. For the most part it has fallen into two categories of science—programming immune cells to specifically fight cancer cells, and inhibiting the cancer cells’ ability to hide from the immune system. Oncolytics and WO-12 is a variation on that. The engineered viruses are apparently able to evade the immune system in order to get inside the cancer cells. Once there, genes programmed into the viruses take over the protein-making machinery of the cancer cells and cause damage to the tumors. How to prevent those viruses from infecting normal cells isn’t immediately clear.

Western Oncolytics is an example of the University of Pittsburgh’s efforts to increase commercial spinouts from technical discoveries. Other examples include Cambridge, Mass.-based Oncorus, which was founded in 2015. Oncorus recently raised $57 million in Series A funding, with Celgene actively participating. The round was led by MPM Capital. Like Western Oncolytics, Oncorus is also working on oncolytic viruses, in this case, to treat glioblastoma multiform (GBM), a form of brain cancer.

Another University of Pittsburgh spinout is SkinJect, also founded last year. SkinJect focuses on delivering drugs via a patch that contains tiny needles. The tech was developed by Louis Falo, a doctor and chair of Pitts’ dermatology department, along with O. Burak Ozdoganlar, professor of mechanical engineering and materials science and engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.

When Patrick Gallagher took on the role of the University of Pittsburgh’s chancellor in 2014, one of his priorities was to facilitate commercialization of faculty research. In 2015, Marc Malandro became founding director of Pitt’s Innovation Institute, which works on transitioning research into commercial companies.

“Faculty have really, really been invigorated and want to be actively involved in seeing their technologies translated into helping patients,” Malandro told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “The new approach to cancer care is really hot now.”

Interestingly, only yesterday BioSpace reported on a Pittsburgh-based startup that was filing for Chapter 11, Falcon Genomics. In that story it was noted that Pittsburgh in general struggles with a relative scarcity of venture capital interested in the life sciences. Peter DeComo, chairman and chief executive officer of Alung Technologies, told the Post-Gazette, “You can spin out technologies all day long. The problem is that if you can’t fund those companies, then spinning them out means nothing. You have to have capital to do that and big capital to do that.”

Pfizer also invested in Series A funding for AnTolRx, a company that is developing antigen-specific Targeted Nanoparticle Tolerance Therapeutics (TNTT) to treat immune disorders. Other investors included Orion Equity Partners and JDRF. The groups investing will provide $4 million over two years to fund AnTolRx’s research and development, which includes treatments for type 1 diabetes.

Pfizer led the round and has an exclusive option to in-license the type 1 diabetes candidate after it hits specific milestones.

“Pfizer is committed to exploring novel approaches for inducing tolerance in autoimmune disorders,” said Michael Vincent, Pfizer’s senior vice president and chief scientific officer, Inflammation & Immunology, in a statement, “and we believe that AnTolRx’s technology may have potential to help create therapeutic value for patients in need.”

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