Boehringer Ingelheim is actively joining the hunt for the next big oncolytic virus program in the hot and happening cancer field.
After backing a small startup round for ViraTherapeutics a little more than a year ago, the pharma company has come back with a $230 million package deal to partner on their work — grabbing an option in the process to buy the company. And the pharma giant says the partnership is a sign of more deals to come as it gears up new pacts.
The companies didn’t spell out the terms, but discovery-stage collaborations like this are usually heavily back ended.
The Austrian biotech is focused on VSV-GP, a chimeric virus derived from the Vesicular Stomatitis Virus which has been studied in the lab by Dorothee von Laer at the Medical University of Innsbruck.
ViraTherapeutics has been involved in preclinical testing up to now, concentrating on mouse studies to track this drug’s ability to be used systemically in repeat applications. Boehringer clearly must have been impressed by the lab work so far, though actual clinical trials won’t get underway until next year.
Amgen was the first to make it to the market with a pioneering oncolytic virus called Imlygic (T-Vec), which it bagged in a billion-dollar deal to acquire BioVex. That drug has had a slow launch since its approval, though, and a growing lineup of biotech companies have set out to beat it.
Imlygic is injected directly into tumors. Like PsiOxus, ViraTherapeutics believes that an oncolytic virus that is delivered systemically can have a much better shot at getting into cancer cells, where they can multiple and then destroy their target. Von Laer also says their drug can spur an immune system attack on cancer, and the company is looking at attaching therapeutic genes and antigens that can drive a better outcome.
In this frenzied deal-making environment, next-gen oncolytic viruses have proved a hot commodity, driving a variety of startups. Philip Astley-Sparke, who helmed BioVex before Amgen bought it up for T-Vec, co-founded Replimune, another next-gen oncolytic virus player. Mitchell Finer, the former CSO at bluebird bio, took the helm at the upstart Oncorus, which just raised a $57 million venture round and is using a herpes simplex virus for their work on glioblastoma. And Duke University’s Dr. Matthias Gromeier has genetically engineered his virus to keep it focused on cancer, and away from healthy tissues. Meanwhile Canada’s Oncolytics Biotech and the Pink Army Cooperative—a very unusual, open source collective commanded by Amgen vet Andrew Hessel—are also in play.
Dr. Michel Pairet, a member of Boehringer Ingelheim’s Board of Managing Directors, had this to say:
“Oncolytic viruses are among the most promising new therapy approaches in cancer research and the technology developed by ViraTherapeutics may offer significant advantages compared to others currently under development. The new collaboration is an example of Boehringer Ingelheim’s increasing focus on partnering and further complements the company’s growing immune-oncology pipeline that includes among others, a therapeutic cancer vaccine and next generation checkpoint inhibitors.”
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