Pincer movement: California biotech gets $35M to suffocate cancer in coordinated attack
Having served in Afghanistan, the navy veteran leading California-based EpicentRx wants to leave no patient behind with his arsenal of anti-cancer drugs. On Thursday, the company was given a $35 million boost to further its mission.
The injection of funds will be used to shepherd its late-stage CD47 drug, RRx-001, to the FDA for marketing, and its oncolytic virus program into the clinic.
RRx-001, engineered as an agent that makes tumor cells more sensitive to therapy, is in a Phase III trial in combination with chemotherapy for use in third-line and beyond small cell lung cancer (SCLC). The drug has been granted orphan drug designation from FDA for SCLC, neuroendocrine cancer and glioblastoma.
In a 26-patient open-label mid-stage study preceding the pivotal SCLC study, treatment with the RRx-001/chemotherapy combo helped patients live longer (overall survival) by 8.6 months and kept their cancer at bay (progression-free survival) for 7.5 months. In contrast, the OS and PFS for third-line line SCLC are reported in the literature as 4.7 months and less than two months, respectively, the company said.
Hitting the “don’t eat me” CD47 receptor target has galvanized an army of drug developers who want to make inroads in the burgeoning field of cancer immunotherapy by offsetting immunosuppression. A plethora of drug developers including Alexo Therapeutics, Arch Oncology, Aurigene, BliNK Biomedical, Celgene, Forty Seven, Novimmune, OSE Immunotherapeutics, Sorrento, Synthon Holding and Trillium Therapeutics, are developing CD47 antagonists in the hope of scrambling the “don’t eat me” signal that cancer cells are dependent on to evade macrophages.
EpicentRx’s drug is derived from a compound used in rocket fuel. Its development was anchored in faith that it was non-toxic, even when its benefits were unknown — given that military agencies in the US have conducted risk assessments to evaluate the potential threat of detonating nitrogenous combustibles in the atmosphere to the health of humans, livestock, wildlife, and ecosystems, the company’s chief medical officer Bryan Oronsky noted in a study published in 2016.
The company’s oncolytic virus platform was in-licensed via its Chief Scientific Officer and UCSD professor of medicine Tony Reid.
Viruses are a pesky pathogen that have been implicated in the development of liver, cervical and head and neck cancer — but modified versions of the parasite can be used to attack tumors. These oncolytic viruses work by spotlighting tumor cells as targets. Once injected, they propagate primarily through cancer cells eliciting the body’s natural immune response to snuff the virus, and their home, the cancer cells.
In 2015, the FDA approved its first oncolytic virus therapy, Amgen’s Imlygic for melanoma patients. In recent years, big pharma has been intoxicated with the potential of this class of therapies, with AstraZeneca, Merck, Boehringer Ingelheim, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and J&J all signing pacts to develop oncolytic virus drugs.
Enhanced with various bits of therapeutic DNA or transgenes, EpicentRx’s first oncolytic virus program is designed to prime the efficacy of existing immunotherapies. Its second program, personalized cancer vaccines equipped with patient-specific neoantigens, is set for the clinic in 2020.
Launched in 2002, the La Jolla-based company has so far raised roughly $77 million in venture capital. The latest round of Series D financing was furnished by undisclosed European private financing sources.
“This financing validates the potential and uniqueness of our two complementary anticancer platforms, which reprogram both arms of the immune system, innate and adaptive, to seek out and destroy cancer cells,” chief Corey Carter said in a statement.