Glyn Edwards takes chairman role at UK oncolytic virus startup emerging from stealth – Endpoints News
Oncolytic viruses – viruses that can selectively replicate in cancer cells and kill them – have increasingly attracted investment and curiosity. However, for the most part, these candidates have not achieved quite as much as their supporters hope.
But now a new biotech claims it can actually meet that bar.
VacV Biotherapeutics emerged from stealth in the UK early on Wednesday morning, led by chief founder and CSO Yaohe Wang and enlisted Glyn Edwards – the former head of C. difficile biotech Summit Therapeutics before Bob Duggan took over in 2020 – as executive chairman. Edwards tells News about endpoints that he got involved earlier this year, back in June, when Wang was looking to set up a company.
“I got involved through a mutual friend who called and said, ‘these guys are trying to turn a company around,'” Edwards said. The chairman added that with his background as a former CEO, he didn’t want to be CEO again — adding that he’s “happy to be chairman and to train these guys. And so I helped them raise the seed money, find figure out how to organize and do the boring admin stuff like sorting out financial accounts, payroll, while they play tunes with these viruses.”
As for how the biotech differs from other oncolytic virus biotechnologies, Edwards said the biotech has made certain modifications to the viral backbone that allow the virus to essentially “coat” itself with the patient’s own proteins, allowing for systemic delivery and not having to be delivered right on the tumor site. Another modification is to a gene called N1L – and according to the chairman, this modification allows reduced neurotoxicity of the original virus and at the same time increases the patient’s immune response against the tumor.
Edwards says another way VacV tries to differentiate itself is that its oncolytic virus can overcome one of the major problems seen in other candidates: lack of potency.
“The [candidates] looks very good in animal models. And then when they come into man, they’ve been relatively stable – they’ve been one or two exceptions to that, which have seen safety issues. But generally speaking, what has held them back is this lack of efficiency, the chairman added. He went on to describe how fine-tuning an oncolytic virus to perform well is a bit of a balancing act—on the one hand, a virus must be modified to not infect healthy cells and only infect tumor cells. But if a virus is modified too much, its infectivity becomes worse.
On the other hand, potency also becomes a balancing act. Per Edwards, initial efforts at other companies were to look at multiple cytokines as payloads for these oncolytic viruses, or just have one cytokine that is extra potent. But if a payload was too strong, it made the immune system’s response go a little overboard, leading to security issues.
“So the state of the art now is to have a virus that’s weakened, but not too much, so that it retains its ability to replicate and infect the tumor cells – and to have the appropriate payload that can go in there, that’s strong enough to invoke the patient’s immune response, but not so strong that you get this cytokine storm,” noted Edwards.
At least in the US, only one oncolytic virus has gotten past the FDA: Amgen’s Imlygic for certain types of melanoma.
So far, the biotech has announced a $3 million seed funding round from Proxima Ventures. And when some other things get going, recruitment for a series A is underway.
“And like all biotech companies, which either admit they’re raising money — or they’re lying — once we get through this launch activity, we’ll be looking to put together a Series A with international investors,” Edwards added.
What’s next for VacV? Amid hiring plans, the biotech says it’s two years away from the clinic, but that has almost nothing to do with candidate development — Edwards said the top two candidates, being looked at in pancreatic cancer and glioblastoma, are basically ready to go. What biotechnology needs, said the chairman, is to settle down as its own company. Setting up production, the company is moving out of the cancer institute where it is currently located and into its own facilities, and hiring more people to help conduct planned clinical trials.
There are a few companies that have also looked at oncolytic viruses. The team at Replimune recently took on a $200 million loan to be issued over the next five years, and while they saw progress earlier this year with their lead candidate, there were initially questions about the effectiveness of the backup candidate.