Oncorus Adds $79.5M to Steer Cancer-Fighting Virus to Human Testing

Xconomy Boston — 

Nearly four years ago, the FDA approved a therapy that uses a virus to infect tumor cells and break them down—the first such viral therapy for treating cancer. Oncorus CEO Ted Ashburn says there’s room to improve on these oncolytic viruses and their role in immunotherapy, and his biotech startup is getting ready to show how.

Oncorus is planning to begin a clinical trial next year testing its cancer-fighting virus in solid tumors. The Cambridge, MA, company now has $79.5 million in financing to support its research. The Series B round of funding announced Wednesday was co-led by Cowen Healthcare Investments and Perceptive Advisors.

Research on oncolytic viruses dates to the 1960s. The concept involves using a virus, one that occurs naturally or is engineered, to infect a tumor cell. Once inside the tumor, the virus replicates until it causes the cell to explode, killing it. These cells deaths lead to the immunotherapy step of the treatment. Tumor antigens are released that trigger the immune system to recognize and fight the cancer.

The first FDA-approved oncolytic virus, talimogene laherparepvec (Imlygic), is based on a modified herpes simplex virus. The Amgen (NASDAQ: AMGN) therapy is injected into the tumor, where the virus replicates and produces a protein intended to stimulate an immune system response. The FDA’s 2015 approval of the Amgen therapy covered melanoma that cannot be treated with surgery.

Like Amgen’s oncolytic virus, lead Oncorus drug candidate ONCR-177 is based on a modified version of the herpes virus. But Ashburn says that Oncorus has made advances in the way it engineers the virus to enable it to carry a bigger therapeutic payload. Onboard ONCR-177 are five anti-cancer proteins that stimulate different parts of the immune system.

“In effect what you’re doing is causing a robust, therapeutic, personalized vaccination for the patient,” says Ashburn (pictured above).

The Oncorus virus also comes with additional safety measures. Ashburn says ONCR-177 is engineered to replicate only in tumor cells, not in healthy tissue. At the American Association for Cancer Research’s annual meeting in April, Oncorus presented preclinical data showing that treatment with ONCR-177 partially or completely shrunk tumors, and the viral therapy led to protective immunity. Ashburn adds that the safety measures appeared to work: No signs of the virus or its therapeutic payload were detected outside of the tumor.

Ashburn says he envisions ONCR-177 being used in combination with checkpoint inhibitors, a type of immunotherapy that blocks proteins that stop the immune system from recognizing and fighting cancer cells. But in some instances, the oncolytic virus could find use as a standalone treatment, he says.

The company has a second therapeutic candidate in its pipeline based on a synthetic oncolytic virus. Ashburn says this virus is meant to be given intravenously, and that it would circulate throughout the body. Using this approach would allow the virus to potentially treat a wider range of tumors, including lung cancer, where direct injection of a therapy is not practical because it risks puncturing the organ, he says.

Oncorus plans to use the new capital to finance Phase 1 tests of ONCR-177. The company will also continue development of its synthetic oncolytic virus. Ashburn says he expects the company will identify a candidate from that platform early next year.

The research that underpins Oncorus was conducted within venture capital firm MPM Capital until the company spun out in 2016 with $57 million in financing. MPM also participated in the latest Oncorus financing, which included participation from other earlier investors UBS Oncology Impact Fund, Deerfield Management, Arkin Bioventures, Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG), and Astellas Venture Management. New investors in the Series B round include Surveyor Capital, Sphera Funds, IMM Investment, QUAD Investment Management, UTC Investment, SV Investment Corp., and Shinhan Investment-Private Equity.

Photo by Oncorus