NY’s Cancer Research Institute Looks to Boost Cancer Immunotherapy

5/9/12Follow @arleneweintraub

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have the resources to pursue. And second, biotech startups in the area of cancer immunology are crippled by a lack of funding in the early stages of research, when the chances of failure are perceived to be particularly high. “Obviously they need the money,” O’Donnell-Tormey says. “But I think we bring a wealth of expertise, and they can learn from that.”

The Cancer Vaccine Acceleration Fund has hit some bumps in its early days. It formed a deal with a once-promising Cambridge, MA-based company called Tolerx to develop an antibody that modulates immune suppression. But Tolerx ran into trouble with its lead diabetes program and had to shut down last fall. The cancer program survived and is now in the hands of a new party, O’Donnell-Tormey says. It is in early human trials, she says, and CRI is investigating whether it might be worthwhile studying its own vaccines in combination with molecules such as Tolerx’s.

CRI’s fund also invested in Washington, D.C.-based Oncovir, which manufactures an ingredient that’s critical for producing cancer vaccines and other drugs.

Jill O'Donnell-Tormey is the CEO of the Cancer Research Institute

O’Donnell-Tormey says the understanding of how the immune system affects cancer continues to evolve. One hot area of research is  “immuno-surveillance,” which suggests that the immune system scans the body for tumor cells and eliminates them before they take hold. “Now it’s gone beyond that to immuno-editing,” she says. “We now understand that the immune system actually shapes the tumor. So the tumor tries to escape from it and changes. Some new technologies are able to measure specific immune responses. Then you can look at how to enhance those.”

During the New York Biotechnology Association conference last week, O’Donnell-Tormey was one of the speakers on a panel enthusiastically titled “Way-Cool Biotech: Advances in Oncology Immunotherapy.” Joining her on the panel was Jedd Wolchok, who directs immunotherapy trials at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. “This area did not get much support—it was considered speculative research for quite some time,” he told the audience at the event. But after the recent drug approvals, he noted, “the field has been blown wide open. Nothing begets interest more than a little success.”

Wolchok is the director of the Cancer Vaccine Collaborative, a joint effort by the CRI and the Ludwig Institute to develop effective therapeutic vaccines against cancer. It’s one of a number of moves made by the CRI to speed up the rate of development in the field of cancer immunology. Last year, for example, the CRI started a new grant initiative called the Clinic and Laboratory Integration Program, “where we’re asking scientists to answer some big questions that are coming out of the lab,” O’Donnell-Tormey says. “We’re trying to get answers that can be translated into the clinic.”

As for the Cancer Vaccine Acceleration Fund, O’Donnell-Tormey says she fielded at least 80 proposals over the last year from companies that want to tap into the new source of research capital. “We’re very selective in terms of our priorities,” she says. Her next challenge, she adds, is to increase the size of the fund so the CRI can help more startups in the field of cancer immunology. “If we had more money, we could do so much more.”

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