Jennerex, Charging Ahead With Tumor-Killing Virus, Follows Biotech Road Less Traveled

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Sometimes the innovation community can be a tough insider’s club. If you’re a biotech startup, you’re only real when Merck/Pfizer/Novartis/Glaxo/Roche or some big VC like Kleiner Perkins bets cash that says you might be real. So sometimes a potentially groundbreaking idea has to find some other way to get critical support. That’s what San Francisco-based Jennerex is doing.

This startup, founded in 2005, has raised $45 million from a group of wealthy individuals and struck three key partnerships with pharmaceutical companies that aren’t exactly household names in this country—South Korea-based Green Cross, China-based Lee’s Pharmaceuticals, and France-based Transgene.

This cast of unusual suspects is setting out to do something that lots of scientists—including those at Emeryville, CA-based Onyx Pharmaceuticals and South San Francisco-based Cell Genesys—have failed to accomplish in the past. Jennerex, like those companies once did, is betting on the intriguing concept of oncolytic viruses. These are viruses that are genetically modified to replicate strictly inside tumors, killing tumor masses from the inside out, while also sparking the immune system to hunt down any residual cancer cells that have spread throughout the body.

No one has yet secured an FDA approval for a cancer drug that works this way, despite lots of trying, so people have a right to be skeptical. But Jennerex has scored some new validation for a new variation on this theme, via a $116 million partnership announced this week with Transgene. That’s enabling Jennerex to lay the groundwork for the next serious step—the third of three stages of clinical trials needed to win FDA approval. If Jennerex’s team of 40 people have learned from the mistakes of the past, they could be sitting on a treatment that fights all sorts of solid tumors—starting with liver and colorectal cancer. And if that Phase III trial delivers proof that its treatment can extend lives, Jennerex will have done it without giving up massive ownership stakes and control to Big Pharma or VCs along the way.

David Kirn

David Kirn

“Everybody acknowledges this has phenomenal potential,” says Jennerex CEO David Kirn. “Everybody is interested and wants to talk to us, but in terms of putting big money down, Big Pharma wants to see want randomized survival data with at least 80 to 100 patients. Once we have that, or have an FDA approval, it will break this field wide open.”

“It’s really too novel for big companies to bite off just yet,” he adds.

Kirn knows all the players quite well, having pursued this idea personally for a long time. He’s an oncologist, currently an adjunct professor for Oxford University, and a veteran from the early days of Onyx Pharmaceuticals. He pushed for the oncolytic virus approach there in the 1990s, just like he is pushing for it today at Jennerex.

Of course, this isn’t just one committed guy at Jennerex up against a wall of resistance from Big Pharma. Woburn, MA-based BioVex raised $70 million in venture capital last year for its oncolytic virus treatment, which is currently being tested in the pivotal stage of clinical trials for patients with melanoma. Calgary, AB-based Oncolytics Biotech (NASDAQ: ONCY) is also in the hunt, as well as more than 100 academic groups around the world, Kirn says. BioVex and Jennerex appear to be the leaders in the field at the moment, he adds.

So what’s new and different with this new crop of oncolytic viruses? Oncolytic viruses of the past tended to be safe and show some activity, but … Next Page »

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