July 8, 2014

Oncos Therapeutics attacks cancer cells with flu viruses

Oncos Therapeutics is developing a cancer treatment based on a modified adenovirus.
Oncos Therapeutics is developing a cancer treatment based on a modified adenovirus.
Antti Vuolanto

The goals that pharmaceutical startup Oncos Therapeutics has set itself are not exactly modest. The company’s objective is to tackle cancer by stimulating the human immune system with the help of the treatment it has developed.

A novel approach to cancer immunotherapy is based on a modified adenovirus:

  1. The virus is modified so that it finds a cancer cell as its host cell and is only capable of dividing in cancer cells. The replication results in the death of the cancer cell.
  2. The virus treatment stimulates the patient’s immune system to identify and destroy cancer cells in a targeted manner.
  3. The virus carries a transgene which is expressed during the replication of the virus. The transgene stimulates the antitumor immune effect of the virus treatment

“Virus-based cancer treatments are being extensively researched worldwide, but not one treatment has yet passed all of the medical test phases required,” says the company’s COO Antti Vuolanto.

Oncos Therapeutics was founded in 2009 to further develop and commercialise a treatment that had initially been developed at the University of Helsinki. It has now passed the phase I clinical tests.

“We have probably come further than anyone else in the world in showing that it is not just about killing cancer cells but also about activating the immune system,” Vuolanto says.

“Following local delivery, the virus causes the disintegration of the cancer cell, as a result of which the immune defense mechanism identifies fragments of the disintegrated cancer cell and learns to fight against similar cancer cells throughout the body,” Vuolanto explains.

“Although the viruses leave the body at some point, the immune defense system will still be capable of identifying cancer cells. Our treatment can thus be perceived as a therapeutic vaccination against cancer.” 

Executives and investments from abroad

Oncos Therapeutics has reinforced its team with two experienced foreign executives with years of experience in the development of drugs. This speaks volumes of the global interest sparked by the company, just as does the 4-million-euro capital investment contributed by the European venture capital provider HealthCap.

“Oncos Therapeutics would hardly be able to commercialise this kind of product on its own. Going forward, it will therefore be important for us to co-operate with major pharmaceutical companies specialising in antitumor immunotherapy,” Vuolanto envisions.

The company has its sights set on the US and European markets. According to Vuolanto, the domestic market is too limited for this kind of cancer treatment: developing drugs in general is so expensive that the market area must cover Europe and the United States.

Before entering the global markets, a lot remains to be done. The next step will be the phase II clinical tests. Their purpose is to show, tentatively, whether the treatment developed by Oncos Therapeutics, together with current care, benefits patients in a clearly measurable way. In practice, this benefit is defined as an increase of survival time.

Text: Anna Korvenoja

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