AbbVie jumps on the oncolytics bandwagon, embracing Turnstone in new collaboration

Turnstone CEO Sammy Farah

AbbVie has paid for a front row seat on the cancer drug strategy being investigated in the clinic at Turnstone Biologics. The pharma outfit snagged an option to buy Turnstone’s lead therapy combining an oncolytic virus approach and cancer vaccine. And if they dive in, AbbVie expects to line up a shot at a series of tumor types with an option on two more programs that Turnstone will work on.

“This is the largest partnership ever formed in this field,” says Turnstone CEO Sammy Farah, who’s clearly pumped to be aligning his biotech with a prominent player in cancer R&D. “It’s a very significant, very meaningful partnership on many levels.”

Using an engineered Maraba virus, researchers have pushed Ad-MG1-MAGEA3 into two Phase I/II studies. The essential approach here follows a classic oncolytics approach — infecting a cancer cell with the virus, which then explodes. While there are a host of next-gen programs to follow up on Amgen’s Imlygic, Turnstone also includes something of a twist.

Several of these second-wave oncolytics are systemically administered, which may help simultaneously attack the origin tumor as well as metastatic sites. While many of these next-gen programs rely on the antigens released in the tumor explosion to recruit a CD4- and CD8-positive T cell attack for a mopping up operation — combined with a longterm memory for the cancer that should enhance durability — Turnstone’s therapy encodes a specific shared tumor antigen to make it into a cancer vaccine.

That added element, Farah notes, makes for a key differentiation from the rest of the drugs now in the clinic.

The third leg of this calls for a checkpoint inhibitor, another common feature in the oncolytics arena, so physicians could add a disarming procedure with a targeted attack and immune system assault.

Imlygic, better known in some circles at T-Vec, has helped establish the proof that oncolytics can make a significant difference for patients. And while cancer vaccines have been ineffective so far in the clinic, they’re role is to enhance the therapeutic effect of the viral attack. Checkpoints, meanwhile, are being added to just about everything.

Tom Hudson, AbbVie

Turnstone’s lead therapy uses the MAGE-A3 antigen for the vaccine element — the same target that GSK tried and failed with in 2014.

A little more than a year ago OrbiMed led Turnstone’s $41.4 million B round, with an expanded syndicate that included new investor F-Prime Capital Partners and existing investors FACIT and Versant Ventures, which led Turnstone’s Series A.

After the Phase I dose escalation phase is complete, Farah says he expects that it will take a couple of more years to complete the Phase II part of that trial. And along the way, he expects the 25 member staff at Turnstone to double over the next 12 to 18 months.

AbbVie added an endorsement with its collaboration.

“This unique approach to cancer treatment complements our expanding portfolio of novel therapies in development,” said Tom Hudson, vice president, oncology discovery and early development, AbbVie. “The combination of our world-class expertise in oncology drug development partnered with Turnstone’s innovative therapeutic platform has the potential to generate first-in-class immunotherapies that can attack tumors directly and improve patients’ response to treatment.”

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Research Scientist - Immunology
Recursion Pharmaceuticals Salt Lake City, UT
Director of Operations
Atlas Venture Cambridge, MA

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