The sandbox: Parker Institute throws its research muscle behind gene therapy tech for destroying cancer cells
John Beadle and the big research team at PsiOxus have thought a lot about infiltrating the ranks of cancer cells, to go inside cells to cause their self-destruction with one of the industry’s leading “unarmed” oncolytc virus programs. But they’re also going one big step further, using their gene therapy tech to penetrate these cells to deliver weapons for their mass destruction. And they’re lining up some powerhouse allies at the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy to speed the work.
What’s the big idea?
PsiOxus — with 95 mostly research staffers in Oxford and Philadelphia — gained considerable attention for its systemic approach to delivering oncolytic viruses, infecting cells that would then burst, attracting T cells into the tumor. But there are also scores of oncolytic viruses in the pipeline. In this case they’re working a reverse strategy to CAR-T. Instead of modifying the T cell to go after cancer cells, they’re modifying the cancer cells to get them to engage with T cells — engineering the cancer cell to express T cell engaging ligands.
The question has been what genes should be added to do the best job. And they believe the IV approach — steering clear of intratumoral injections — should help simplify things considerably, upping their chances of success in hitting the target.
PsiOxus already gained the support of Bristol-Myers Squibb, which partnered on the biotech’s NG-348 in a $915 million deal in late 2016. That drug encodes two immunomodulatory MiTe proteins in its genome: a human CD80 and an antibody fragment specific for the T-cell receptor CD3 protein, both designed to muster T cells to attack specific cancer cells only.
“They’re such a great group,” says Parker Institute Director of Research Samantha Bucktrout about PsiOxus. “When we go to have discussions, it’s a ‘no-idea-is-stupid’ zone, but also an ego-free zone. They’ve done a lot of rigorous work to move their pipeline forward, both pre-clinical and in the clinic, and aren’t afraid to take risks. We see a lot of blue sky in terms of where we can go with them, scientifically.”
Those blue skies are what spurred tech mogul Sean Parker to set up his eponymous institute, organizing a network of more than 300 prominent scientists with financial support and creating networks of experts to assist the companies they work with to dig deeper and go beyond the frontiers of commercial I/O. But they’re also goal oriented, pursuing what PICI chief Jeff Bluestone calls a “sandbox” strategy: a contained, organized approach to their work driven by a set of clear objectives.
Extra funding is always good, says Beadle, but it’s the people Parker brings to the table that make the big difference.
“The key is their network of institutions and academics,” notes the CEO, who expects to eventually put together another round for the biotech before eventually setting their sights on an IPO.
The plan at PsiOxus is to move two programs into the clinic, with an IND coming in Q1 of next year. The first is a CD40 agonist, and the second will include a package of 4 different genes covering a bispecific with chemokines to attract T cells and another to express interferon alpha to activate dendritic cells.