NY’s Cancer Research Institute Looks to Boost Cancer Immunotherapy

5/9/12Follow @arleneweintraub

When the Cancer Research Institute was founded in 1953 in New York, it set out to pursue an idea that was radical at the time—the notion that mobilizing the body’s innate immune mechanisms could be the key to fighting cancer. Since then, the organization has supported students studying cancer immunology, funded academic research, and even set out to develop two therapeutic cancer vaccines itself.

It was the quest to develop those treatments that inspired the leadership of the 60-year-old organization to begin collaborating with the pharmaceutical industry for the first time. In late 2010, Cancer Research Institute (CRI) set up the Cancer Vaccine Acceleration Fund, with the goal of funding clinical trials in partnership with biotech and pharmaceutical companies that are working on therapeutic cancer vaccines and other drugs that stimulate the body’s immune system to eradicate tumors.

The fund, which CRI is managing in partnership with the New York-based Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, aims to invest $5 million to $7 million a year. It has formed deals with two companies so far and is in negotiations with a third, says Jill O’Donnell-Tormey, CEO and director of scientific affairs for CRI.

No doubt, CRI is late to the venture-philanthropy party. Dozens of not-for-profits have set up venture funds to support early-stage research, including the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation, and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. O’Donnell-Tormey says CRI’s fund takes more of a hands-on approach to venture capital than those organizations do. “We have a network of experts already who have worked in this space,” she says. “We want to have input in terms of shaping and accelerating the projects.”

CRI’s venture fund got off the ground just as the field of cancer immunology was enjoying a major boost from a string of drug advances. Last March, the FDA approved ipilumumab (Yervoy), a melanoma drug from Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY) that blocks the activity of an immune-suppressing molecule. And despite numerous setbacks, Dendreon’s (NASDAQ: DNDN) sipuleucel-T (Provenge)—which fights prostate cancer by using patients’ own immune cells—is starting to generate demand in the marketplace.

The CRI was motivated to start its fund by what it identified as the two major obstacles to developing cancer vaccines. First, making vaccines sometimes requires combining multiple components that might be owned by different companies. That presents partnering and strategic challenges that small companies might not … Next Page »

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