Western Oncolytics Featured in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Following Pfizer Deal

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Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. has taken a stake in a new University of Pittsburgh spinout company, the third Pitt biotech outfit in recent years to quickly spark investor interest.

Molecular biologist Stephen Thorne is taking leave from his academic position at Pitt to set up an office and lab space in Harmar after forming Western Oncolytics Ltd. Mr. Thorne is preparing to commercialize a novel cancer treatment that he developed and licensed from Pitt.

The company, which employs five people, raised $2.5 million internally before Pfizer’s investment, which was not disclosed. With $48.9 billion in annual sales, New York City-based Pfizer ranks second in size among drug and biotech companies, trailing Johnson & Johnson of New Brunswick, N.J.

Early testing results for the Western Oncolytics cancer treatment have been promising, Mr. Thorne said.

“Some of the preclinical models look fantastic,” he said. “Oncolytic viruses are a significant leap forward.”

Central to Mr. Thorne’s research is a virus that can evade human defenses to replicate inside tumor cells, where the virus gums up the cancer cell’s genetic machinery. In early trials, the virus worked on a variety of tumors, creating the prospect that the therapy could one day replace or be used with chemotherapy to kill cancer.

A phase one clinical trial for the technology is expected in 2017, Mr. Thorne said, with marketing of a product anticipated by 2021 after Food and Drug Administration approval.

Western Oncolytics was the first startup to use the university’s Innovation Institute’s new streamlined licensing procedure, which speeds the process while reducing associated costs. Pitt also eased its leave policy for faculty who want to be entrepreneurs.

In forming the company, the 45-year-old Mr. Thorne wades into the market for personalized medicine, which has been heating up in recent years as researchers match treatments to individual patients, especially those with cancer. Historically, cancer treatments have not made allowances for the individual, using a one-size-fits-all approach instead.

But technological breakthroughs and improved understanding of the human genome have opened the door to individualized cancer treatments. And Pitt is playing a bigger part in this arena than it had in the past, thanks in part to the university making it easier for faculty to commercialize research.

Other examples of Pitt’s growing commercialization role include Cambridge, Mass.-based Oncorus Inc., founded in 2015, which licensed technology developed at the university to create an cancer-fighting virus platform for the treatment of different forms of the disease. Oncorus recently raised $57 million in a Series A funding round.

Ross-based SkinJect Inc., also founded in 2015, is the third company spun out of Pitt in recent years to quickly attract investor attention. SkinJect, which administers medication through a patch containing tiny needles, was developed by Louis Falo, a physician and chair of the dermatology department at Pitt, and O. Burak Ozdoganlar, professor of mechanical engineering and materials science and engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.

SkinJect and Valley Forge, Pa.-based InClinica Inc., a contract research organization, are targeted to receive support from a $35 million funding round organized by Velocity Fund Partners, an O’Hara-based private equity fund. Skinject clinical trials are expected in early 2017.

Making it easier to commercialize faculty research was among Patrick Gallagher’s priorities when he took over as Pitt chancellor in 2014. A year later, Marc Malandro was named founding director of Pitt’s Innovation Institute, which has been the key to smoothing the way for faculty who want to takes their ideas to market.

“Faculty have really, really been invigorated and want to be actively involved in seeing their technologies translated into helping patients,” Mr. Malandro said. “The new approach to cancer care is really hot now.”

Kris B. Mamula: kmamula@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699

First Published September 8, 2016, 12:00am

Contact: info@westernoncolytics.com