West London may not have been an obvious choice for a growing biotech company, but Avacta Therapeutics might be on to something by moving away from Cambridge, (already rammed with biotechs) and into London. The company found a home in Scale Space, a light, airy modern building which is part of Imperial College London’s new White City Campus, located at the heart of the area’s White City Innovation District. The new headquarters were officially opened by Lord James O’Shaughnessy, member of the UK House of Lords.
“The opening of Avacta’s new facility in London is a proud day and we’re pleased to see innovative biotech companies being tempted away from Cambridge to form important life science hubs in London,” said Lord O’Shaughnessy, who also warned that “unless the UK continues to build successful life science, cleantech, and fintech sectors in hubs like this over the next 30 years, then it won’t be successful as a country at tackling inequalities in healthcare and other areas.
“We need to invest more in life sciences as currently we’re spending too little of our GDP in this sector, and it needs to increase by at least another one percent.”
Starting to build a thriving life science hub
The White City area of London, traditionally associated with the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) is starting to build a thriving life science hub and has recently become home to other start-up biotech and life science companies. The White City Innovation District was the brainchild of Imperial College London, which had the foresight to buy land in the area when the BBC was relocating to the North of England. Since 2020, Imperial, in partnership with companies such as Blenheim Chalcot (a digital venture firm that supported the building of Scale Space), is continuing to expand the district.
“Our mission is to improve oncology drugs and patients’ lives,” pointed out Alastair Smith, Avacta’s CEO. “We have two technologies, our pre|CISION™ and Affimer® platforms, which when combined could help deliver on this. However, to successfully translate our technology from the lab into clinical development we need to collaborate with leading clinicians and have talented staff in-house, which we had to compete for in Cambridge. Being in London offers us access to a world-class talent pool from leading universities and medical schools that we can retain or collaborate with, and this will help us move forward more rapidly with our clinical development.”
To discuss Avacta’s clinical program, Udai Banerji, PhD, of The Institute of Cancer Research, in London, who is running clinical trials with one of Avacta’s clinical candidates (AVA6000), expanded more at the open day on why companies like Avacta need to be developing different types of cancer therapies.
“Many cancer drugs are still too cytotoxic so that although they successfully destroy tumor cells, they also destroy health tissues around them, and this is what weakens and kills many patients,” explained Banerji. “I always say it’s like trying to target weeds in a lawn, you want to kill the weeds but keep the grass green and that’s the kind of targeted approach you ideally want from a cancer therapeutic.”
Range of techniques to target cancer cells
Banerji described a range of methods for targeting cancer cells and explained how Avacta’s lead pre|CISION drug candidate, AVA6000, currently in a Phase I trial to treat soft tissue sarcoma, is different. According to Banerji, AVA6000 is a form of the generic chemotherapy doxorubicin that has been modified using pre|CISION technology. This technology incorporates a substrate that is sensitive to cleavage by fibroblast activation protein (FAP), which is upregulated in the tumor microenvironment but is less abundant or absent in healthy cells. Avacta’s doxorubicin FAP targeted drug is designed to selectively release active chemotherapy in the tumor. This reduces exposure to doxorubicin’s cytotoxic effects on healthy cells, while simultaneously increasing its therapeutic effects on cancerous ones.
Preclinical data from AVA6000 is positive and on the strength of this, Avacta opened an IND with FDA in November 2021 in addition to FDA granting AVA6000 orphan drug status in September 2022.
Avacta’s long-term focus is to achieve a more durable response for patients through synergy of the innate immune response to pre|CISION chemotherapies with the adaptive immune response to Affimer immunotherapies in the form of co-administered combinations and in novel tumor-microenvironment activated drug conjugates. To continue with its preclinical and clinical development programs, Avacta now needs more staff and space to expand, hence the relocation from Cambridge to London.
“Imperial College London had the vision to build this site under difficult conditions of the pandemic,” said Michael Holmes, CEO of Scale Space. “We’d like to give credit to Neil Bell and Dr Fiona McLaughlin at Avacta for having the foresight and belief that White City is the right location for Avacta to flourish.
“Avacta joins a growing life science cluster in this area of over twenty biotechs and pharma firms which includes Novartis, Autolus, and Eden Bio. Clusters are important as they provide networks that are generous and collaborative and make growing hubs like Imperial College London’s White City Campus attractive for like-minded talent looking to innovate and scale their business.”
Sue Pearson, PhD, is a freelance writer based in the U.K.