Metis Foundation, Targeting Military Researchers, Plans Fund Raise

Xconomy Texas — 

San Antonio — [Corrected 1:20 p.m. See below.] A San Antonio nonprofit that aims to help medical researchers earn grants is beginning to raise money for a program that it says may be able to provide funding to both researchers working on new cancer vaccines and patients who participate in early stage clinical trials.

The Metis Foundation, founded two years ago, tries to help medical researchers get federal government grants, particularly scientists working in the military who might be able to qualify for funding from the U.S. Department of Defense. Though the foundation will work with scientists from other organizations, its primary focus is military researchers.

Metis is modeled after other similar nonprofits, including the Bethesda, MD-based Henry Jackson Foundation, which offer infrastructure, funding, and administrative services to researchers who may have scientific developments, but lack the know-how or resources to get funding for clinical development, according to Rodney Chan, chairman of the Metis board.

San Antonio is a hotbed of medical research, including the Brooke Army Medical Center, the U.S. Air Force’s 59th Medical Wing, and the burn center housed at the United States Army Institute of Surgical Research. While the Henry Jackson Foundation focuses on getting grants to government researchers broadly, the organization is large and can miss some of the R&D work in San Antonio, Chan says. He and the Metis co-founders felt they could provide assistance in landing funding for researchers here, from  simply helping them develop proposals to aiding with human resources.

“Because there’s so much research medically related in San Antonio, there needs to be an organization that has a personal footprint here,” Chan said in an interview in his downtown San Antonio office. Chan is the chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery at the Army’s burn center.

Now the Metis Foundation is beginning to raise private capital for researchers specifically developing cancer vaccines. The foundation hopes to raise $3 million over three years to help provide funding for the vaccine research, as well as to potentially use some of the money to help cover the expenses incurred by patients who might participate in any clinical trials related to it, according to Dan Hargrove, a Metis board member.

Hargrove, who is the chief development officer for a contract research organization focused on immunotherapy in town called Cancer Insight, is directing the foundation’s cancer vaccine-focused fundraising and research work, aptly called the Cancer Vaccine Development Program. He expects to initially try to raise the money from nonprofits and public foundations in San Antonio that have an interest in cancer.

Thus far, cancer vaccines haven’t been very successful. There is a long list of experimental cancer vaccines that have flopped in trials, among them GlaxoSmithKline’s MAGE-A3, Merck KGaA’s Stimuvax, and most recently, Celldex Therapeutics’ (NASDAQ: CLDX) rindopepimut. The only cancer vaccine to win FDA approval was Dendreon’s sipuleucel-T (Provenge).

Nonetheless, investments in cancer vaccines have continued, as they’re one of many tools that researchers and biotechs are trying to use to spur the immune system to fight cancer.  A new type of cancer vaccine has emerged, for instance, containing what are known as “neo-antigens”—genetic fingerprints left behind by tumors as they mutate. That strategy has already led to the formation of two companies, San Francisco-based Gritstone Oncology and Cambridge, MA-based Neon Therapeutics, over the past year. Just last week, Neon was cleared by the FDA to begin the first clinical trial of a neo-antigen vaccine called NEO-PV-01 in patients with skin, lung, or bladder cancer.

For Metis, the work is earlier stage and on a much smaller scale, and the fundraising is intended to supplement the government grants it also helps the medical researchers gain. Chan says the foundation is planning similar programs for other conditions, such as regenerative medicine, specifically in areas like burn victims.

Part of the goal for seeking the private funding is to provide money to patients who participate in clinical trials, reimbursing them for travel expenses like gas and hotel costs. Programs already exist to provide financial assistance to patients participating in clinical trials, from insurance to government resources to private organizations.

Even so, Metis believes there’s still plenty of need and demand for additional assistance, particularly to patients from more rural or poor areas of states like Texas, where the cost of getting to and from clinical trial sites in cities from Houston to San Antonio can make it difficult to participate, Hargrove says.

“For our purposes, we’re helping patients who need help, getting them access to clinical trials,” Hargrove says. “We wish to broaden the pool of patients who could benefit from cutting-edge clinical trials, yet lack the resources.”

Institutions doing research such as clinical trials can apply to the Metis. Depending on the type of study—if it’s for cancer vaccines or, eventually, regenerative medicine—a group working with the foundation would assess whether to give funds and how much, Chan says.

In addition to using the funding to reimburse patient expenses, the clinical trial sites could use funding for internal use, such as hiring research assistants or administrative workers, Hargrove says.

The idea for the cancer vaccine focus stems from a San Antonio military researcher, George Peoples, who spent 30 years as an active duty surgeon and research scientist in the U.S. Army. While working at the San Antonio Military Medical Center, a part of the Brooke Army Medical Center, Peoples focused on developing cancer vaccines, including one called NeuVax, a vaccine drug being studied by San Ramon, CA-based Galena Biosciences on its own and in combination with Herceptin (trastuzumab) for breast cancer.

Peoples has remained in San Antonio after retiring from the military and keeps busy, working on the development of a few drugs for other companies, including Rapamycin Holdings, which Xconomy profiled in April. The San Antonio biotech advocacy organization, BioMed SA, plans to present Peoples with its annual award for innovation in healthcare and bioscience (formerly called the Palmaz Award) in September, as first reported by the San Antonio Business Journal.

Peoples also founded the contract research organization that Hargrove works at, Cancer Insight. He has no direct role in Metis, but the strategy he used to spur cancer vaccine development in the military—which he also called the Cancer Vaccine Development Program—is being used by the Metis Foundation. Peoples will only act as an informal advisor and mentor, Chan says.

For any of the grants that Metis helps researchers get, it takes a percentage to cover operating costs, like most university or foundations that administer grants to researchers. The foundation has three full-time employees and a few part-time workers focused on legal and finance issues, Chan says. Others, like Chan, Hargrove, and Metis CEO Anders Carlsson, are unpaid. [Paragraph changed to clarify that Carlsson is not paid.]

Because the grants take many months to get funding, Metis has successfully received three on behalf of its researchers, Chan says. The organization is working with 12 or so at any given time, he says.

Chan says he believes the value of the foundation comes down to more than just handling the administrative technicalities. By focusing on military researchers, who have little incentive from the government to try to turn their work into a product, Metis may be able to help fund science that advance disease treatments, Chan says.

“It’s hard to get people to stay in the basic science and stay within these academic laboratories,” Chan says. “Being able to give back in the form of small grants will help this workforce stay in the business.”