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Next-generation cancer partnership
RIDGEFIELD, Conn.—Oncolytic virus therapy is a cancer treatment approach that uses a virus to infect and break down cancer cells, triggering an immune response to fight the tumor. Boehringer Ingelheim and ViraTherapeutics recently announced a long-term research and development collaboration to co-fund and jointly develop a next-generation oncolytic virus therapy platform and to investigate ViraTherapeutics’ lead candidate VSV-GP (vesicular stomatitis virus-glycoprotein) alone and in combination with other therapies.
Compared to other platforms under development, ViraTherapeutics’ candidate is said to have a shorter replication time and the ability to prime and boost an anticancer immune response.
ViraTherapeutics, a privately held Austrian biopharmaceutical company developing virus-based immunotherapeutics for the treatment of cancer, has grown its technology with support from investors, including the Boehringer Ingelheim Venture Fund, and will be responsible for preclinical and clinical testing in Phase 1 trials. Under the terms of the collaboration, Boehringer Ingelheim, one of the world’s 20 leading pharmaceutical companies, receives the right to acquire ViraTherapeutics after conclusion of Phase 1 clinical development.
VSV-GP reportedly does not integrate in the DNA and has been modified to avoid neural inflammation associated with wild-type viruses. In VSV-GP the glycoprotein of the vesicular stomatitis virus has been replaced by the glycoprotein of the lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus to conceal the virus from the immune system. In preclinical models it did not induce virus-neutralizing antibodies, potentially enabling repeated administration.
“By replicating specifically in cancer cells, oncolytic virus therapy can destroy cancerous tissue while avoiding harm to normal cells,” explained Dr. Martina Flammer, vice president of clinical development and medical affairs specialty care for Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals Inc. “Oncolytic viruses can also stimulate an immune response by exposing tumor antigens that are normally hidden from the immune system inside the cells. Additionally, oncolytic viruses may be combined with traditional therapies such as chemotherapy.”
She adds: “Because VSV-GP replicates faster than other oncolytic virus platforms currently under development, there is more rapid and efficient destruction of cancer cells. VSV-GP has also been modified in ways that allow it to avoid detection by the host immune system, as well as prevent neural inflammation.”
Boehringer Ingelheim plans to test VSV-GP as a monotherapy. The platform offers potential for combination with other anticancer therapies, such as checkpoint inhibitors and therapeutic cancer vaccines (such as CV9202, a novel investigational therapeutic mRNA vaccine being investigated under a collaboration between Boehringer Ingelheim and CureVac).
According to Flammer, Boehringer Ingelheim “sees partnering as a key pillar of its oncology strategy, at all stages of research and development, to address the unmet needs of patients, caregivers and healthcare professionals,” adding that the company seeks “partners that are aligned with our vision and who bring unique capabilities to a collaboration effort.”
“In the collaboration with Boehringer Ingelheim, we can now fully explore the platform and therapeutic potential of our VSV-GP oncolytic virus,” said Dr. Dorothee von Laer, scientific founder and CEO of ViraTherapeutics. “We will also continue to investigate VSV-GP’s potential to be armed with therapeutic genes as well as antigens for its use as a prophylactic or therapeutic vaccine vector.”
Boehringer Ingelheim and ViraTherapeutics aim to start Phase 1 testing of VSV-GP in 2018. Future studies will be defined moving forward and will be communicated at a later time. There is a potential transaction value of up to €210 million ($230 million), according to company sources.
Inspired by the news of the Boehringer Ingelheim-ViraTherapeutics deal, Dr. Brad Thompson, CEO of Canada-based Oncolytics Biotech, offered to share his thoughts with DDNews about the past and the potential of oncolytics.
“The potential of oncolytic viruses to treat cancer has actually been known since the 1800s,” said Thompson, who has been working on a formulation of the human reovirus (Reolysin) since 1998. “Sometimes, technology has a long gestation period with starts and stops, and the real potential gets discovered many years later.”
The field of oncolytics gained with the approval of Amgen’s Imlygic, opening doors for the rest of the companies working in the space and making it easier to raise capital to support their programs, he offered, adding that oncolytic viruses as a whole have interaction with the immune systems and they may have targeted selectivity or broad-based activity. Viruses are more varied than animals, with mechanisms of action that target certain cancers; thus, different viruses may be better suited for specific kinds of cancer.
For its part, Reolysin has been used in more than 30 clinical trials including translational, Phase 1, Phase 2 (single-arm and randomized) and Phase 3 studies in a broad range of cancer indications. It kills tumors in two-thirds of the patients and works with any cancer drugs, Thompson said.
He concluded, “There are 8.5 million deaths from cancer worldwide every year. There is a role for viruses in every kind of cancer as one line of therapy. After all the years of working in this area, it’s great to see the attention being given to it.”