Immunotherapy Companies Make Strides in Fight Against Cancer

Steve Thorne stis at a table in a dark jacketThe fight against cancer has made progress: Over the past 30 years, cancer death rates have declined, according to the National Cancer Institute.

But, of course, new cancer cases are diagnosed daily, with the American Cancer Society estimating that 606,520 people will die from cancer in the U.S. 2020. This equates to 1,660 cancer deaths per day. 

“The impact of these diseases is far-reaching, not just health-wise, but psychologically, socially and economically; all of us have been affected by this disease directly or indirectly,” said Lazar Vujanovic, assistant professor of otolaryngology at the University of Pittsburgh, and formerly a hematology and oncology researcher at Pitt. “The current generation of therapies that have shown clinical potential require state of the art medical care and carry a heavy price tag. We need to develop novel therapies that are broadly applicable, easy to use and affordable.”

To that end, researchers are steadily taking new cancer therapies and treatment innovations to market, and the city of Pittsburgh and Pitt function as major research hubs for scientists seeking to defeat the emperor of all maladies. 

“I have been excited at how Pittsburgh and the university system has really moved into a far more entrepreneurial space, to be more willing to establish a biotech hub,” said Steve Thorne, chief scientific officer at Western Oncolytics, which spun out of Pitt.

Thorne co-founded Western Oncolytics in 2014 while researching cell biology and immunotherapy at Pitt, with the goal of advancing oncolytic immunotherapy, which introduces viruses to weaken cancerous tumors while avoiding affecting healthy cells.

“Oncolytic viruses are one of the safer and more tolerable therapies out there,” Thorne said. “While patients may get flu-like symptoms, when compared to other therapies like chemotherapy or cytokine therapies, more people may be likely to live a normal life through oncolytic virus treatment.”

After patenting its technology at Pitt, Western Oncolytics relocated to RIDC Industrial Park, about 10 miles northeast of Pitt’s main campus, and is advancing its research with help from a partnership with the pharmaceutical company Pfizer.

Thorne said the company is working to get this immunotherapy to clinical trials.

On the other side of the country, in La Jolla, California, another biotechnology company with Pitt ties is advancing its research to market. 

INmune Bio, formed in 2015, is focused on harnessing the patient’s immune system to treat cancer. One way the company is doing that is by using Pitt research to decipher the roles of tumor necrosis factor (TNF) proteins in the regulation of immune cells.

Lazar and Nikola Vujanovic posing togetherThe company in-licensed technology in 2017 from the Los Angeles, California-based company Xencor, which provided an experimental drug to research duo Lazar Vujanovic and his father, Nikola Vujanovic, professor emeritus of pathology and immunology at Pitt. The two had been studying TNF and how its two molecular forms, transmembrane and soluble, operate. Based on these studies, they obtained a Pitt patent, which was licensed to INmune Bio.

“We have shown that transmembrane TNF emulates anti-cancer immune functions, leading to restriction of tumor growth,” said Nikola Vujanovic. “Meanwhile, soluble TNF has an opposing tumor-protective activity by suppressing immune cells. When we selectively neutralized soluble TNF, the immunosuppression was eliminated, antitumor immune response was restored and promoted, and tumor growth was inhibited.”

“The tumor microenvironment is like a shield and it doesn’t matter how good your immune cells are. They won’t do anything against a strong shield like that, which is why tumors can thrive despite your body’s immune system otherwise functioning normally,” said David Moss, chief financial officer and co-founder of INmune Bio. “You have to take the shield down for the immunotherapy to work better.”

The researchers and the company are now focusing their efforts on neutralizing soluble TNF so the body’s immune system and immunotherapies can be more effective against cancerous tumors. This has led to a successful early phase clinical trial. INmune Bio is currently preparing a second clinical trial in patients with advanced melanoma.  

These companies’ growing promise can be attributed to a University-wide commitment to fostering research advancements and nurturing an entrepreneurial spirit, the same factors that have made Pittsburgh a national research hub. This includes strong research programs and treatment networks from the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center.

“We have a robust basic clinical research program in cancer and an extremely deep clinical research component as well here at Pitt,” said Evan Facher, director of Pitt’s Innovation Institute. “Days like World Cancer Day remind us there are still significant gaps in treatment and care for patients with this debilitating disease. Our focus in commercializing these technologies is always motivated by societal benefits, so seeing these companies get closer to reaching patients with potentially life-saving therapies is why we do what we do.”

“Regardless of how perceivably small or mundane the research may be, it matters. These are small pieces of a large puzzle that will ultimately lead us to novel, effective and more accessible therapies to treat these terrible diseases,” said Lazar Vujanovic.