Drug hunters have long been studying how to turn viruses into cancer-fighting tools. The work has led to the formation of more than a dozen companies focused on these so-called oncolytic viruses, with the latest, IconOVir Bio, debuting Tuesday.
IconOVir comes equipped with $77 million in Series A funding and a technology platform built on more than a decade of research by its scientific founder, Clodagh O'Shea, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences.
Generally speaking, oncolytic viruses are supposed to leave healthy cells untouched while launching a two-pronged attack against cancerous ones. First, they invade some of these malignant cells and, like a balloon filling with too much air, replicate over and over until the cells pop. Then, as those cells die, they release materials that alert the immune system to the presence of the cancer, which leads to another offensive.
While there remains much enthusiasm for the approach, oncolytic viruses, like all areas of drug research, have run into setbacks. About a year and a half ago, for example, a large clinical trial testing one such treatment — developed by the French biotech Transgene — was stopped early because it didn't look likely to succeed.
On a broader level, these therapies have had trouble getting to market and making money once there. The Food and Drug Administration has approved just one of these treatments, known as Imlygic, and to date it hasn't been a meaningful seller for its developer, Amgen.
The platform created by O'Shea has the potential to overcome some of these challenges, according to IconOVir's newly minted CEO Mark McCamish, who joins fresh off of selling his immuno-oncology company Forty Seven to Gilead for $5 billion.
McCamish explains that the platform can tweak oncolytic viruses to make them safer and more effective. For example, IconOVir's lead project is derived from a common cold virus that naturally enters cells with the help of certain proteins. When cells become cancerous, they lose these receptor proteins; so O'Shea found a way to outfit the virus with molecular equipment that allows it to still bind to tumors, McCamish said.
Another concern with virus therapies is their ability to invade healthy cells and turn on the switch that makes the cell duplicate. McCamish says IconOVir has found a way to alter viruses so that they don't do this, which he claims makes for a more potent treatment.
"Many of the oncolytic viruses have kind of been de-tuned, because there's a potential for the virus to hurt a healthy cell," McCamish told BioPharma Dive. "We don't have to do that, because we have differentiated our virus so it won't amplify in normal cells."
McCamish added that the potential applications of O'Shea's work were what attracted him, as well as early-stage investors, to IconOVir. The company's Series A round was co-led by the healthcare investors Nextech and Vida Ventures, and also had participation from several venture firms, including Polaris Partners, Wellington Partners and GV (formerly Google Ventures).
Two River Group, the venture firm that founded IconOVir, also participated in the funding round. The group is led by industry veteran Arie Belldegrun, and grew to prominence with its investments into cutting-edge biotechs like Allogene Therapeutics, Kronos Bio and Kite Pharma, which sold to Gilead in 2017 for $12 billion.
McCamish argues this early interest, particularly from the likes of Wellington Management, which is know for doing intense due diligence and not getting involved in Series A financing, is a positive sign for IconOVir. "I was very pleased with the investor support for this, which, to me, confirms the due diligence I did myself on the company."
With fresh cash in hand, IconOVir aims to get that lead therapy, known as IOV-1042, into clinical testing in the first half of 2022. McCamish said there is a follow-on program the company also hopes to get into the clinic within the next 18 to 24 months, and behind that is a third drug prospect.
McCamish expects IconOVir to raise more money around the time IOV-1042 would enter clinical trials, since testing and manufacturing should "dramatically" increase costs.
And looking further ahead, he sees the public markets as a crucial source of funding too.
"We ran into this at Forty Seven," he said. "When we started having success, we wanted to do more and more clinical trials. And therefore, even after raising $400 million, we couldn't do as many clinical trials as we wanted to do."
Public markets have shown an appetite for oncolytic virus companies, as evidenced by the recent $87 million haul from Oncorus, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based biotech whose lead program utilizes herpes simplex virus to try to treat a variety of cancers. Oncorus' share price is up 144% from where it started at in October.
Meanwhile, there's also been plenty of interest from large pharmaceutical companies. In 2018 alone, Johnson & Johnson, Merck & Co. and Boehringer Ingelheim each acquired biotechs working on oncolytic virus therapies.
As for IconOVir, McCamish said it's "not our goal to to go out and be acquired."