French-Belgian biotech banks €20M to break ground in blood-splattered field of therapeutic cancer vaccines
About a decade ago, the ill-fated therapeutic cancer vaccine — Provenge — was approved, eventually bankrupting its developer Dendreon. Since then, a number of drugmakers have seen similar efforts splutter and fizzle, although the emergence of immunotherapies — checkpoint inhibitors and CAR-T drugs — offered a glimmer of hope in resuscitating the field. Banking on that promise is PDC*line Pharma, which secured a €20 million injection on Wednesday.
Spun out of the French Blood Bank, the Belgian-French biotech is developing off-the-shelf cancer vaccines that are based on a therapeutic cell line of plasmacytoid dendritic cells, which are sometimes referred to as the Swiss army knife of immune cells due to their diverse range of function. PDC*line Pharma’s technology is being developed to be synergistic with checkpoint inhibitors.
Scientists initially hoped that turbocharging the immune system to battle cancer cells would be enough to shrink tumors. But that didn’t quite occur since cancer cells possess the ability to put ‘brakes’ on that immune assault.
In the case of Provenge, data showed the product helped prostate cancer patients live longer — but there was no evidence of tumor shrinkage or cancer cell death. Still, Wall Street tagged it with blockbuster expectations. But its adoption was restricted by its complex autologous therapeutic administration, high price tag and changing treatment landscape. Since then, a number of other therapeutic cancer vaccine makers have crashed and burned — including Argos Therapeutics and Bavarian Nordic.
A few years ago, the emergence of checkpoint inhibitors — which are engineered to unleash the immune system — emerged as the perfect partner in crime for the therapeutic cancer vaccine. That is what PDC*line Pharma hopes its vaccine will accomplish.
Its lead product is currently in a Phase I/II study in patients with the most common form of lung cancer. Enrollment is expected to be completed by 2022, chief Eric Halioua told Endpoints News.
Provenge’s complicated autologous administration, cost of goods, batch-to-batch variability and underwhelming efficacy all contributed to its tepid sales, Halioua suggested, indicating that PDC*line Pharma’s plan to incorporate a checkpoint inhibitor into the equation would likely be beneficial.
“You need a good vaccine to activate (the) immune system, and you need something to break the defense mechanisms of the tumor. And all the first generations of vaccines were not in these situations. ”
Although the company is initially testing its off-the-shelf vaccine as a monotherapy, eventually a checkpoint inhibitor will be added to the mix.
But caution is warranted: Efforts to combine therapeutic cancer vaccines and checkpoint inhibitors have also met with failure. Last month, French biotech Transgene abandoned its therapeutic lung cancer vaccine after mid-stage data showed that when tested alongside Bristol-Myers’ Opdivo, the combination did not significantly shrink tumors.
Altogether PDC*line Pharma — which recently signed a €108 million licensing deal (plus royalties) for its lung cancer vaccine in South Korea and other Asian regions — has raised more than €30 million since its inception in 2014.
In this latest round of Series B funding, PDC*line Pharma lured five new investors: Korean Investment Partners, as well as two South Korean funds — Shinhan-Cognitive Start-up Fund and UTC 2019 BIOVENTUREFUND — in addition to two Belgian funds, SRIW (The Regional Investment Company of Wallonia) and Sambrinvest (the investment fund of Charleroi).
The new investors joined existing investors SFPI-FPIM, the Belgian Federal Holding and Investment Company, Noshaq Group, the Financière Spin-off Luxembourgeoise/INVESTSUD Group, among other undisclosed names.