Across the San Diego Business Journal’s list of 41 biotech companies and 11 biopharma companies these represent a sample of the life science organizations in the region. Approximately half of the organizations on each list are comprised of companies that are working on treatments for cancer patients.
Beyond the well-known approaches of chemotherapy and radiation for treating cancer, scientists have honed-in on precision medicines as a promising solution to cancer. One area in particular that is offering a variety of innovative solutions is the field of immuno-oncology.
Scientists are developing various immunotherapies which in some way or another engages with the patient’s immune system and works with it to fight the cancer. The San Diego Business Journal connected with experts and company leaders who are innovating new technologies and treatments that are aimed at wiping out cancer.
The Moores Cancer Center at UC San Diego Health is one of the leading cancer research institutions in the country. Scott M. Lippman, M.D. is the director of the center and he shared that some of the key transformations in cancer therapies can be traced back to the growth of precision medicine around 2004 and 2005.
In the field of immuno-oncology, a couple of the pivotal features of precision medicine include researchers’ ability to analyze the driver mutations behind cancer and checkpoint inhibitors, a type of immunotherapy that blocks immune checkpoint proteins from binding with partner proteins.
With this understanding of cancer at a deeper level, researchers are developing precise and sometimes even personalized medicines that help a patient’s body fight their specific cancer.
At the Moores Cancer Center, they have about 400 clinical trials happening at any given time, said Matthew Jenusaitis, MSE, MBA, chief administrative officer, oncology and radiation therapy at the Moores Cancer Center.
He added that as a result of the pandemic, people put off routine health screenings and now that things have opened up a little bit more, people are returning to the doctors and thus, their clinic volume is up 25%, versus last year.
“That’s one of the unique things about an academic medical center — we’re doing a lot of research and we’re very adamant about the bench to bedside aspect of our research,” he said. “Cancer technology and cancer therapy is evolving very quickly so your chances of survival are higher if you’re enrolled in a clinical trial, and you’re getting the latest technologies.”
As the life science industry at large grows rapidly thanks to an increase of capital flowing into biotechs, there are more companies working on ways to cure cancer. Just over the past few months a couple of the local biotechs that went public included cancer focused companies.
Alongside rapid innovation and the need to scale, comes logistical challenges. But, San Diego-based Biosero has been helping companies big and small across the industry get over those hurdles through its Green Button Go software that helps automate lab workflows.
“Our focus is allowing the cancer researchers to focus on that data and focus on those analytics, and let the difficulty of connecting their devices and streaming that data to where they need it to go to make those decisions, leave that up to companies like us because focusing on the science is hard enough,” said Tom Gilman president and CEO of Biosero.
Biosero’s Senior Applications Scientist, Donald Chow connects with companies to find custom solutions and make sure Biosero’s technology platforms help them optimize their workflows. Chow spent many years working as a cancer researcher so he intimately understands that while advancements in technology have provided researchers with more data, they need help managing and maintaining that information in their work.
“Now your ability to test is sort of speeding up and now, how do you process all of that, especially with the high volumes and what you can do with it,” Chow said.
He explained that as we develop more complex diagnostics to analyze a person’s health and response to treatments for instance, it is important that they have the technology to keep things in order so they can make actionable decisions based on that data.
Analyzing and Detecting Cancer Early
Illumina — number one on the biotech companies list and one of San Diego’s largest public companies — develops sequencing technology that helps researchers analyze cancer at the genomic level. Its TruSight Oncology 500 platform is a widely used next-generation sequencing (NGS) assay that enables in-house comprehensive genomic profiling of tumor samples.
Notably, this year Illumina has decided to move forward with the acquisition of GRAIL, a healthcare company focused on life-saving early detection of multiple cancers. GRAIL’s Galleri test can detect more than 50 cancers across all stages, of which 45 do not have recommended screening in the U.S.
According to Illumina, cancer kills around 10 million people a year — about 600,000 people in the U.S.
“We know that early detection of cancer saves lives by enabling early-stage intervention, when cancers are most treatable,” said Illumina’s CEO, Francis deSouza. “The Galleri blood test will be nothing short of transformational for human health and the economics of healthcare. And through acquiring GRAIL, Illumina will accelerate access and adoption of this life-saving test worldwide.”
Poseida Therapeutics is a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company utilizing proprietary genetic engineering platform technologies to create cell and gene therapeutics with the capacity to cure cancers and genetic diseases.
“To date, other CAR-T therapeutics have not had much success outside of hematologic malignancies,” said Eric Ostertag, M.D., Ph.D., chief executive officer of Poseida. “The deep and durable responses in our trial demonstrate that CAR-T products have the potential to work well against solid tumors, even at low doses, when using the appropriate technology platform.”
The company’s CAR-T product candidates modify the immune system’s T-cells to treat multiple myeloma, prostate cancer and other solid tumors like breast, ovarian, colorectal or pancreatic cancers.
Additionally, Poseida is developing P-MUC1C-ALLO1, an allogeneic CAR-T product candidate in preclinical development with the potential to treat a wide range of solid tumors derived from epithelial cells.
“In the cell therapy space, one of the most exciting approaches is the quest to create an allogeneic cell therapy for treating cancers,” said Mark Gergen, president and chief business officer at Poseida.
Inovio Pharmaceuticals develops DNA medicines and they are creating a pipeline of immunotherapies in oncology that could tackle liquid and solid tumors. Its two candidates in the pipeline are focused on an aggressive form of brain cancer, glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) and prostate cancer.
Dr. Skolnik explained that Inovio’s potential therapies for cancer are a revolution in the ability to build an immune response against specific cancer cells that, instead of being built in a laboratory and infused into your body, like CAR-T therapies, it is administered directly to the patient.
“[It] allows the patient to build one’s own immune response in one’s own body (“in vivo,” in the body), rather than “ex vivo,” in a laboratory. Like CAR-T, Inovio’s technology aims to build antigen-specific T cells that are able to target and kill cancer cells,” Dr. Skolnik said.
At San Diego-based Halozyme, they are developing novel oncology therapies designed to target the tumor microenvironment and licenses a novel drug delivery technology through corporate partnerships. The key to is Halozyme’s ENHANZE, a drug delivery technology is based on the company’s proprietary enzyme, recombinant human hyaluronidase PH 20 (rHuPH20).
When it is injected into the skin, it creates channels under the skin such that you’re able to then inject larger volumes of liquids and fluids and drugs where they can be exposed to the lymphatics and to the bloodstream and be absorbed. Their technology has a variety of applications, but its current focus in oncology tackles early-stage breast cancer, multiple blood cancers and multiple myleoma.
“Basically, we’re not restrained in which area we use, sometimes it’s doctor delivery, sometimes it’s a cronic autoimmune disease,” said Halozyme’s CEO, Helen Torley. “Just think about all of the drugs that today need to be delivered in more than 5 mLs IV and that might be an opportunity for ENHANZE, so there’s a very large universe.”
The company has 11 partners and among them are pharmaceutical giants such as Roche, Janssen and Bristol Myers Squibb who are working on cancer treatments using ENHANZE.
The company’s business model allows for an efficient timeline in the innovation process, as their partners do a subcutaneous (subq) injection version of a drug that’s already approved, so its time from first-in-human to approval has on average been just five years, Torley said.