NY’s Cancer Research Institute Looks to Boost Cancer Immunotherapy

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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 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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