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No venture capitalists want to touch another immunotherapy company because of the dismal record. Big Pharma companies will listen, but say they need to see some data in humans before they get on board. So CG needs $3.5 million to run an early-stage clinical trial before it can go ahead.
“Raising money is a bitch,” Hopp says. “VCs are afraid of cancer vaccines.”
The company may not have enough financial backing at the moment, but it has some support from scientists. Vern Stevens, an Ohio State University biologist who invented CG’s predecessor immunotherapy, is a scientific adviser. Karl-Erik and Ingegerd Hellstrom, the pioneering husband-and-wife immunology research duo in Seattle, are working to develop a genetically engineered antibody drug that could be infused alongside CG-201 in the early period while it’s taking time to charge up the immune system, Hopp says.
Eastland told me the team’s tenacity was what encouraged her to join the board. “I am impressed with the passion and energy Denise, Tom and the team bring to ensuring the drug gets back into clinical studies,” Eastland said in an e-mail. “They have put a considerable amount of personal time, energy and funding to keep the program alive.”
CG Therapeutics isn’t the only company aiming at the hCG hormone. Needham, MA-based Celldex Therapeutics (NASDAQ: CLDX) is developing an immune-boosting treatment against colorectal, pancreatic, bladder, ovarian, and breast tumors. Researchers in China are also taking a keen interest in this target, although Hopp says he’s not aware of a version moving ahead in commercially-sponsored trials.
The initial clinical trial is designed to enroll 18 to 24 patients, and ought to yield data on whether CG-201 is safe and promising within 12 months, Hopp says. The initial uses will be for ovarian and bladder cancers, which express high amounts of the hormone of interest. If CG can get that far, in a grim financing environment, then it’s confident that doors will start opening from VCs and pharmaceutical partners who want to bet on the next big thing.
For a guy who still hasn’t taken the new immunotherapy into the clinic, Hopp didn’t mince words about what kind of potential he sees. “We think this will be the biggest cancer target of all time,” he says. “We think we will have the first successful cancer vaccine. It’s too good to quit on.”
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