Billionaire-backed Parker Institute tackles the Holy Grail of cancer R&D — with a virtual unknown

Up until about 6 months ago, Fred Ramsdell, the vice president for research at the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, had never heard of Tessa Therapeutics. But he and some of the top cancer researchers associated with the Parker Institute’s far flung network of investigators have been making up for lost time.

Fred Ramsdell

The Parker Institute — funded by tech mogul Sean Parker — is announcing Monday that it is making a leap into next-gen adoptive cell therapies for cancer, joining with Singapore-based Tessa. Their new biotech ally is now engaged in a Phase III trial that hopes to open a new chapter in the field, looking to share the spotlight with the leaders which have dominated the immunotherapy arena so far. And the partners have some big plans for the future.

“Obviously there’s a lot of press and clinical data and excitement around CAR-T,” says Ramsdell, the vice president for research at the Parker Institute. “That’s great and wonderful. What Tessa is doing is a lot different.”

Instead of extracting T cells and reengineering them to hunt down and kill cancer cells, a CAR-T approach that requires aggressive management of some severe reactions but with some remarkable results for liquid cancers, Tessa takes blood and expands and adapts virus-specific T cells to target virally-associated tumors like cervical and head and neck cancer, swarming the cells.

“As much as its technological aspect, it’s also a philosophical alignment,” Ramsdell adds about the alliance. “They have a very good scientific underpinning. They know what they’re doing; very well rounded….You never know, but it looks really quite good.”

In this new collaboration, star immunotherapy specialists like Phil Greenberg at the Fred Hutch and Crystal Mackall of Stanford are being brought in to work with Tessa’s research team, headed by Chief Scientific Officer John Connolly and CMO Han Chong Toh, the deputy director of the National Cancer Centre Singapore and one of the top cancer investigators in the region. Other investigators in the Parker network can also pitch ideas on advancing the work, possibly even getting funding for small proof-of-concept studies to test their notions.

“In any collaboration,” says Ramsdell, “we can be the hub of that wheel and bring the different approaches together.”

That fits in perfectly with Tessa’s strategy, Connolly tells me. The veteran Baylor College of Medicine investigator ran into Han Chong Toh — who had been at the Center for Cell and Gene Therapy at Baylor College of Medicine working under founding director Malcolm Brenner — after he moved to Singapore in 2010 to set up a lab.

John Connolly

Tessa’s Phase III will read out in 2018, says Connolly, giving them a pivotal chance to demonstrate how they can transform B cells with the Epstein-Barr virus, moving beyond random activation of T cells with chimeric antigen receptors to a potentially much more targeted cell therapy designed to continually hunt down and kill specific cancer cells. The HPV program can do the same for head and neck and other cancers. And when you start to marry this approach with other immunotherapies, you can start to visualize Tessa’s goal: eliminating solid tumors, the Holy Grail of cell therapy.

Connolly and Han Chong Toh are directing the late-stage program, sanctioned with the FDA’s fast track and orphan drug designations, which is being conducted in 5 countries with 29 sites.

Ramsdell was attracted by an approach that should avoid offsite toxicity. And with the natural signaling involved, he also believes you’re more likely to create memory cells that can keep up the attack — promising a durable response.

“Tessa (with a base of IP in-licensed from Baylor College of Medicine) adds their own secret sauce of cytokines that activate in a particular way for good killing and durability,” notes Ramsdell, helping avoid the risk of burning the cells out, which happens when you multiply their numbers.

The early results “showed beautiful survival data,” says Connolly, which helped attract a lineup of family offices and high net worth investors to back a biotech that now has a staff of about 130.

Tessa turned up at ASCO in early June with Phase II data on 35 patients with rare cases of Stage 4c nasopharyngeal carcinoma, or NPC, associated with Epstein-Barr virus. Their conclusion:

The 2- and 3-year overall survival rates were 62.9% and 37.1% respectively, which represent the best reported survival outcome for first-line treatment of advanced NPC when compared to historical clinical trials.

Tessa added that it has biomarkers to identify which patients are likely to benefit, the kind of strategy that the FDA prefers.

‘We’re very interested in moving CAR-T to next-gen as well, putting payloads into CAR-T, etcetera, etcetera,” says Ramsdell. “The parallel here is that as you move into solid tumors, Tessa is more advanced technically, conceptually and philosophically.”

Just a few months ago Tessa launched a collaboration with Rochester, MN-based Vyriad, which has clinical-stage oncolytic viruses that infect and destroy cancer cells, but also use antigens to flag an immune system attack (one of a group of next-gen oncolytics companies looking to do T-Vec better. Tessa sees it as a match of synergistic technologies for fighting cancer.

In March Tessa also bought out another Singapore startup, Euchloe, which has been working on a slate of antibodies, including PD-1, as well as chimeric antigen receptor technologies for next-gen CARs.

Tessa may just be still in the early stages of its debut on the global biotech scene. But with Asian biotechs taking a more central role in drug development, it could already be on the verge of doing something big.

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Skyhawk Therapeutics Waltham, MA
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Elektroki Boston, MA
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Elektroki Boston, MA
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Recursion Pharmaceuticals Salt Lake City, UT

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