An international pharmaceutical giant has signed a deal to license a cancer-killing virus from Rochester drug company.
MedImmune, which is owned by London-based AstraZeneca, is licensing a genetically engineered strain of the vesicular stomatitis virus from Omnis Pharmaceuticals. Omnis is a Rochester start-up founded by Dr. Stephen J. Russell, Dr. Kah-Whye Peng, Shruthi Naik and Mark Federspiel, who all work at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. A fifth founder, Glen Barber, is based at the University of Miami.
The companies now will collaborate to combine the Omnis virus with a check point inhibitor created by MedImmune. The goal is to eventually create a treatment for types of cancer affecting the liver, but potentially could be developed to treat a broad array of cancers.
"For us, it's a very big and very important step forward," Omnis CEO Russell said. "Essentially, we have AstraZeneca/MedIummune saying, 'We love this lead product of yours. We want to pick it up, cover the development costs and run with you to bring it to market.' That's a huge accelerator for this development program."
He explained that oncolytic viruses, similar to the one MedImmune is licensing from Omnis, have been found to be effective in destroying cancer cells. Many companies, in the U.S. and internationally, are working on their own treatment based on viruses.
"That's why they're excited about this virus. They can inject it directly into a tumor and kill tumor cells. That wakes up immune system, which adds to the attack," Russell said. "Then if you get the check point inhibitor antibody, the hope is that will lead to major tumor destruction."
This collaboration could mean a lot to Rochester. The US cancer vaccine market was estimated in 2012 to be worth about $14 billion. With about 1.5 million Americans being diagnosed with cancer every year, that market could possibly grow to reach $20 billion by 2020.
While the companies declined to release any financial details of the deal, it's clear the upfront payment portion of the agreement has given Omnis a boost to pursue its own goals, parallel to MedImmune project.
"Our obsession, if you like, is to develop viruses that could be given as systemic intravenous anti-cancer therapy," Russell said.
This virtual start-up, which was founded in late 2013, is "based" on the first floor the Minnesota BioBusiness Center in downtown Rochester in the facilities of Imanis Life Sciences.
Imanis is a related company that was founded by Russell, Peng and Dennis E. Young. It launched in the Mayo Clinic Business Accelerator on the second floor of the building and soon leased 1,736-square-feet of space for its offices and a "wet lab." Imanis makes genetic tracking agents for use in medical research. It also does medical imaging and conduct experiments for clients.
Russell said while Omnis has a lot of potential to break new ground scientifically, Imanis is the more likely candidate to grow into a economic driver and job creator in Rochester.
"That company (Imanis) will probably grow to occupy a fairly large footprint. This company (Omnis) is less likely to arrive at that point," he said.
In 2015, Peng said, "We hope to build it faster to up to 30 to 50 people as we do more manufacturing. We hope to be able to keep it in downtown Rochester. This is our home."
The group also has a third virtual start-up company called Magnis Therapeutics, which is working on a cancer treatment based on the measles virus.
Having three companies with names that end in "-nis" seemed like a good idea at first, said Russell with chuckle. But now, he admits it might be a bit confusing.