Themis Bioscience said it will expand its measles vector immunomodulation portfolio into immuno-oncology through an exclusive global license agreement with the technology transfer agency of the Max Planck Society to develop and commercialize oncolytic virotherapies.
The licensing deal between Themis and Max-Planck-Innovation—whose value was not disclosed—covers therapies based on an oncolytic measles virus platform jointly developed by the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry and Eberhard-Karls-University Tübingen.
“We believe the longstanding expertise of Ulrich Lauer, M.D.’s virotherapy research group at the University Tübingen in advanced oncolytic approaches together with our measles virus product development capabilities provide a strong foundation to rapidly develop differentiated immuno-oncology therapeutics,” Themis CEO and founder Erich Tauber said in a statement.
“This is a transformative step for the company,” Tauber added.
Dr. Lauer is head of virotherapy research at Tübingen. In a review article published last month in the journal Oncolytic Virotherapy, he and colleagues noted that a gap between promising preclinical data and limited clinical success is one explanation why only a single oncolytic virus has been approved by the FDA and European Medicines Agency (EMA)—Amgen’s Imlygic® (talimogene laherparepvec), indicated for local treatment of unresectable cutaneous, subcutaneous, and nodal lesions in patients with melanoma recurrent after initial surgery.
“Since oncolytic viruses are biological agents, they might require more realistic in vitro tumor models than common monolayer tumor cell cultures to provide meaningful predictive preclinical evaluation results,” Dr. Lauer and colleagues observed. “For more realistic in vitro tumor models, 3D tumor cell-culture systems can be employed in preclinical virotherapy research.”
3D tumor cell cultures, they continued, offer a more realistic depiction of the in vivo tumor environment that “helps us to understand and improve therapy options for cancer patients, such as oncolytic virotherapy.
“Of course, further investigations have to be done to establish 3D cell cultures as a common alternative to more traditional assays. However, such research efforts are expected to be fruitful and most probably will open up new opportunities in the field of oncolytic virotherapy.”
Modified Measles Virus
The licensed technology is a modified measles virus based on the viral genome sequence of the established measles vaccine strain. Themis’ measles vector platform was developed at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, and is now licensed to the company.
The measles virus has innate anticancer properties—including mediation of tumor cell lysis, T-cell activation, and specific tumor cell targeting—and can be engineered to include a tumor killing payload, which Themis reasons could serve as a key building block for an effective oncolytic virus immunotherapy.
That payload, Thermis says, can include multiple large recombinant protein antigens, such as full-length proteins or virus-like particles (VLPs), to overcome limitations of previous approaches.
Expansion into cancer immunotherapy would broaden Themis’ pipeline, which until now has consisted of proprietary and partnered vaccine candidates against infectious diseases.
The lead program is a vaccine against chikungunya that according to Themis is anticipated to enter Phase III development “in the near- to medium-term.” That vaccine has been granted the EMA’s PRIority MEdicines (PRIME) designation.
In addition to chikungunya, Themis is also developing vaccines against Zika virus, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), norovirus, and cytomegalovirus (CMV), as well as other applications of immune system activation.
Themis says its vaccination vector can incorporate large recombinant genes coding for selected antigens into its genome. The vaccine delivers the selected antigens directly to macrophages and dendritic cells, the most potent and effective antigen-presenting cells, in order to trigger a specific immune response to the selected antigens.
As a replicating vector, the vaccine continuously expresses antigens even after immunization. According to Themis, this results in a powerful, antigen-focused immune response that is expected to confer long-term immunity.
Themis has also established a cGMP manufacturing process for its measles vector technology.
The company in January won €10 million ($11.55 million) in Series C financing led by new investor Global Health Investment Fund with current investors that included aws Gruenderfonds, Omnes Capital, Ventech, and Wellington Partners Life Sciences.