The next frontier in fighting cancer is using the body’s own immune system to fight the disease, an approach that will supplement traditional radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
So says the chief executive of Cell Medica, a London-based life sciences startup that’s put down roots in the Texas Medical Center.
As the keynote speaker at a BioHouston breakfast Thursday, Cell Medica’s CEO and founder Gregg Sando described treatments his company is working on to help recruit patients’ own immune systems to fight tumors. Key to the process is replicating disease-fighting T cells with receptors on their surfaces that let them home in on the cancer. “The T-cell receptor is nature’s best weapon,” says Sando (pictured.)
The London-based biosciences firm opened a Houston office six months ago, specifically to work on its program for therapies in Epstein-Barr Virus-associated cancer, which causes 18 percent of all cancer, he says. “All humans have EBV on a latent basis,” Sando says. Cell Medica’s aim is to treat cancer as a disorder of the immune system, and its expansion into the United States comes as the spotlight has fallen on investigational immunotherapy, as was seen at the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s recent conference.
“This is the next step in the cancer battle,” says Jacqueline Northcut, BioHouston’s president and CEO. “I think Texas could be the capital of immunotherapy.”
An ecosystem is forming, she says, citing the presence of the Center for Cell and Gene Therapy at Baylor University College of Medicine, the Center for Innovation in Advanced Development and Manufacturing at Texas A&M University, and the recruitment last November of James Allison, the director of the Ludwig Center for Cancer Immunotherapy at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
For local economic development boosters, Cell Medica’s move to Houston is also further proof of the international reach of the Texas Medical Center. Other British life sciences companies with a presence in the state include AstraZeneca, BSI, GlaxoSmithKline, and Smith & Nephew, according to the British Consulate-General in Houston.
Cell Medica, which has an office in Berlin, opened in Houston because it was drawn to the city’s central location in the United States. “But also, one of the biggest challenges for companies like us is, can we find the technical people here? And we can in Houston,” Sando says. “Nothing happens without people.”
It also didn’t hurt that the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas gave Cell Medica a $15.5 million grant last year, he added. The state funds make up two-thirds of the $25 million that the firm has raised, which has largely come from European institutions, such as Imperial Innovations of Imperial College in London.
(Cell Medica received the CPRIT funds months before Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced a moratorium on the institute’s activities following allegations of irresponsible actions related to grant awarding. State legislators have proposed a series of reforms to the institute, which is pending gubernatorial action.)
Sando will continue to be based in London but says his firm has seven employees in Houston, and it plans to hire as many as four more people this year. The company has a total staff of 31.
Founded in Great Britain in 2006, Cell Medica has a more advanced business and research project in Europe, which is related to the treatment of infections that result from bone marrow transplants. (Its European operations are expected to generate revenue by the end of this year, Sando says.)
In May, Cell Medica announced the treatment of the first patient in its Aspire trial, an Phase I/II clinical study investigating the safety and efficacy of their proposed therapy for the treatment of adenovirus infections in pediatric patients after bone marrow transplants. The treatment is currently being tested on three patients—with plans to include 12 more—in two randomized controlled studies across 15 centers in the UK.
“Ninety percent of the work on immunotherapy so far as been academic,” Sando says. “We have a better technology platform today to take it out of the lab and commercialize it.”