OncoSec Medical CEO Punit Dhillon tells me the startup he helped establish in San Diego last March is beginning mid-stage safety and efficacy trials of its proprietary technology for enhancing drug delivery in treatments of several types of skin cancer.
The technology, which OncoSec acquired from Blue Bell, PA-based Inovio Pharmaceuticals (AMEX: INO) almost a year ago, transmits intense electrical pulses into skin tumors through six electrode needles that are pushed into the skin. The electricity causes the tumor cells to become permeable with each jolt, and makes it easier for anti-cancer drugs injected into the region to pass through the tumor cells’ tough outer membrane. Known as electroporation, the process increases the concentration of an anti-cancer drug within the tumor.
“What we’re doing is a much more elegant and targeted approach,” says Dhillon, who estimates the technique increases the uptake of anti-cancer drugs by 4,000 to 10,000 times. As a result, doctors can reduce the dosage of anti-cancer drugs used with electroporation technology.
Dhillon, who previously served as Inovio’s vice president of finance and operations, says Inovio has been an electroporation pioneer. The Pennsylvania company decided last year, however, to sell technology that was unrelated to its strategic focus on developing DNA vaccines for cervical dysplasia, leukemia, and hepatitis C virus therapies.
The deal to acquire Inovio’s assets didn’t happen by chance. Inovio chairman and former CEO Avtar Dhillon is Punit Dhillon’s uncle, and their family and friends raised the initial $1.1 million that funded OncoSec after the company sprang to life through a reverse merger with a dormant public company. The San Diego startup raised another $3 million last June from two New York health funds, Hudson Bay Capital and Heights Capital. That should be enough cash for OncoSec to complete three mid-stage trials the company plans to begin before the end of March.
The three studies will use OncoSec’s electroporation technology to deliver the company’s lead drug candidate, called Interleukin-12 (IL-12) cytokine, to three groups of patients with different lethal skin cancers—metastatic melanoma, Merkel cell carcinoma, and cutaneous T-cell lymphoma. The experimental drug is intended to both trigger and boost a strong immune response to each type of cancer. The combined treatment, known as electroimmunotherapy, represents a potential new anti-cancer treatment with broad applicability, although Punit Dhillon says the company must pursue separate regulatory approvals to treat each type of cancer (as a combination drug-and-device product) on an application-by-application basis.
OncoSec says its technology also can be used in the same way in electrochemotherapy, which uses an established anti-cancer drug like bleomycin while a tumor is being electroporated. The use of electroporation in chemotherapy has been studied more throroughly, and Punit Dhillon says he wants to advance OncoSec’s approach through a partnership with a bigger pharmaceutical company.
“2011 was a great year for us,” he says, “and we’ve got some exciting milestones to look forward to in 2012.” Once the latest studies have been completed, OncoSec’s Dhillon says he looks forward to licensing opportunities and other commercial prospects, and he adds, “We also still have the chemotherapy program in the wings.”
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