Philadelphia startup breaks new ground against cancer that killed John McCain

April 15, 2019  |  John George – Senior Reporter, Philadelphia Business Journal


Dr. David W. Andrews reviews a brain scan of a glioblastoma patient.

 

The company, Imvax Inc., generated positive early-stage clinical trial results of IGV-001, its experimental glioblastoma therapy.

A diagnosis of glioblastoma typically carries an average survival rate of about 15 months. In an early-stage clinical trial testing of IGV-001 in 33 patients, Imvax reported the treatment outperformed standard of care — surgery, chemotherapy and radiation — in patients with newly diagnosed glioblastoma who received a single dose of its investigational vaccine.

Dr. David W. Andrews, an Imvax co-founder who has worked on the treatment for the past 15 years at Jefferson, said 11 patients who participated in the trial, which began in 2015, have returned to “active, vigorous lives.” Imvax is finalizing a multimillion-dollar investment round that will help fund additional clinical trials and allow the company to hire more staff.

Andrews said the therapy has been tested with clinical trial patients ranging in age from 34 to 75. “Every patient has been courageous and enthusiastic about the clinical trial,” he said. “They know there are patients who might do well [with the therapy] and others that are unlikely to respond as well due to problems with their immune systems and for other reasons that remain unclear. From my perspective, I want to provide patients with hope — but realistic hope — and that is supported by our results to date.”

Imvax co-founder Craig Hooper, a professor in the department of cancer biology at Jefferson, said this is an era where cancer patients are seeingmore and more successes with immunotherapies. “There is a growing sense of optimism that cancer is curable,” he said.

 

Craig Hooper in his lab.

 

What makes Imvax’s immunotherapy unique is it has shown preliminary success with a solid tumor where previous experimental treatments  — which are designed to boost the ability of person’s own immune system to identify and kill tumor cells — have not worked well.

Imvax, founded in 2015 by Andrews, Hooper and journalist-turned-entrepreneur Arthur W. Howe IV, now has five full-time employees augmented by a team of nearly two dozen consultants, advisors and contract workers.

The company’s IGV-001 therapy grew out of private research Andrews and Hooper conducted into a personalized approach to treating glioblastoma during nearly two decades at Jefferson. The investigational treatment is a cell vaccine that combines a patient’s own glioblastoma tumor tissue with an antisense molecule, together designed to inhibit continued cancer cell growth and kill the tumors. Andrews and Hooper devised a proprietary package of the tumor tissue and antisense molecule combination in small bio-diffusion chambers with porous membranes.

The result is a therapeutic vaccine directed against the subject’s brain tumor. Each chamber can hold about one million cell.

Patients receiving the treatment first undergo surgery to remove the brain tumor. Next, the bio-diffusion chambers are implanted into a patient’s abdomen for 48 hours. During that time the contents disperse to boost the ability of the patient’s immune system to identify and go after residual malignant glioma tumor cells. Andrews said his research has shown IGV-001 works by exposing the immune system to brain tumor antigens, stimulating pro-inflammatory tumor immune cells and boosting anti-tumor immunity.

Andrews said the initial research and clinical evaluation for the glioblastoma treatment was funded by $6.7 million in grants from private philanthropists, including the Samuel J. Paparone Foundation and the Albert F. Stevens Foundation. The Kimmel Cancer Center at Thomas Jefferson University also provided some bridge funding. The decision to create a company to commercialize the technology was driven largely by the cost of a getting a new drug candidate through the regulatory review process.

“For me, as a basic scientist, I know how much clinical trials cost,” Hooper said.“They are very costly. If forming a company would help us get funding I was all for it.”

In June 2016, Imvax signed an exclusive license agreement with Thomas Jefferson University granting it the right to develop and market the medical technology.

The company raised $15 million in a Series A round two summers ago. Imvax has not accepted any venture capital funding, and that will continue with the series B round. “We want to be able to go at our own pace and we want to be able to do things our way,” said Imvax Executive Chairman Peter Corr, a former Pfizer executive.

Should the treatment be successful, Imvax will likely seeking a partnership with a larger drug company.

 

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