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Singapore-based firm on track to commercialise cancer drug


SCIENTISTS are now a step closer to turning cancer patients' own immune cells (T-cells) against the tumours in their bodies - and possibly finding a cure for the dreaded disease.

A Singapore-based biotechnology firm has emerged ahead of the very crowded research field of T-cell immunotherapy, by conducting the world's first US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Phase Three cancer T-cell therapy trial involving a number of hospitals and treatment centres across the world.

This means Tessa Therapeutics will produce the world's first commercial T-cell therapy treatment for solid tumours.

Tessa announced last week that it has set up a multi-year strategic alliance with the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy in California to jointly advance research in this field.

The Parker Institute, funded by tech mogul Sean Parker, will work with Tessa on the Phase Three trial, where, instead of merely extracting T-cells and re-engineering them to hunt down and kill cancer cells, Tessa's virus-specific T-Cells (VSTs) will work alongside Parker's anti-tumour treatment called a Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) to target multiple solid tumours.

Parker Institute's vice-president of research Fred Ramsdell said Tessa has built an impressive team as well as an advanced suite of capabilities in the immuno-oncology arena.

"They have recognised many of the challenges to cellular therapies and are addressing them in thoughtful, science-driven ways - and are laying the foundation for the next generation of therapies.

"Few organisations have the commitment and vision of Tessa, and we are excited to help bring these attributes to our Parker Institute network and to further the goal of effective therapeutic development."

The partnership has given Tessa a leg up, putting it on target to producing the world's first US FDA-approved T-cell therapy treatment for solid tumours; it has received "Fast Track" status and "Orphan Drug" designation by FDA, and is looking at a commercial launch in 2020.

Tessa told Bloomberg this monththat it will be looking for about US$100 million in extra funding later in the year, and that one option is to go for an initial public offering over the next 12 to 18 months.

The company's chief executive Andrew Khoo told The Business Times on Tuesday: "We are looking at the NASDAQ, where investors are more savvy when it comes to investing in biotech and medical research."

The move may value the biotech company at "well over" US$500 million, based on comparable listed companies worldwide.

Tessa's treatment, known as TT10, entails taking a sample of the patient's blood, separating the infection-fighting T-cells it contains and stimulating them in the laboratory with specialised cells to produce virus-specific T-cells. Such T-cells are capable of hunting down and destroying cancer cells that carry the protein fragments of the virus on the surface of the tumour.

Tessa's chief scientific officer John Connolly said: "These T-cells are multiplied in the lab and reintroduced to the patient in the form of an infusion. In the words of (Dr Toh) Han Chong, the treatment re-introduces a highly trained special force into the community, which will, in turn, train T-cells to hone in on specific tumour proteins and kill them."

Dr Toh is the company's chief medical officer and also deputy director of the National Cancer Centre (NCC), one of about 30 sites in five countries that will investigate whether TT10 is better than conventional therapy in improving the chances of survival among patients with advanced cancer of the nasopharynx linked to a viral infection.

The treatment is directed at cancer cells harbouring the Epstein-Barr virus, one of seven human viruses that have been found to cause as many as 15 per cent of cancers.

At the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) this month, Tessa presented data from its Phase Two trial on 35 patients with rare cases of Stage 4C nasopharyngeal cancer (NPC) associated with the Epstein-Barr virus.

Dr Connolly said: "The two-year overall survival rates were 62.9 per cent, compared to the 20 per cent survival outcome for chemotherapy. This represented the best-reported survival results for first-line treatment of advanced NPC when compared to historical clinical trials."

He added that Tessa is also testing its TT10 product in early-stage trials for cervical cancer and oropharyngeal cancer, which are linked to the human papilloma virus.

In February, Tessa announced its joint laboratory with the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB) of A*Star (Agency for Science, Technology and Research) to build on its VST platform to create the next generation of immunotherapies to treat solid tumours.

The following month, Tessa acquired Euchloe Bio, a start-up biotech company specialising in the development and commercialisation of antibodies to treat cancer.