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Engineered Viruses Licensed for Cancer Therapies

Vaccinia virus

Microscope image of vaccinia virus (CDC,

19 Dec. 2019. A biotechnology company developing cancer immunotherapies with synthetic viruses is licensing its technology to Takeda Pharmaceuticals. The deal with Takeda is expected to bring Turnstone Biologics Inc. in Ottawa, Canada and New York at least $120 million in milestone payments and equity investments, with additional payments of up to $900 million possible if the partnership is extended.

Turnstone Biologics creates treatments for cancer with an engineered form of the vaccinia virus, a microbe known for centuries and the basis for early vaccines, such as for smallpox. The vaccinia virus is also the backbone of Turnstone Biologics’s technology, designed to stimulate the immune system against tumors. The company says its engineered vaccinia virus is enhanced to better recognize antigen proteins that invoke immune responses and take on the micro-environment that supports tumor growth.

Turnstone Biologics says that because of vaccinia’s larger size, the company’s engineered form of the virus can accommodate larger therapeutic payloads. Its lead product, code-named Rival-01, addresses three targets: a binding protein known as FLT3 on the surface of cells, an antibody protein called CTLA-4 that acts as a checkpoint to prevent the immune system from attacking cancer cells, and the cytokine protein interleukin-12 that invokes an immune response against tumor cells.

The deal gives Takeda Pharmaceuticals, a global drug maker headquartered in Tokyo, an exclusive worldwide license to co-develop and commercialize Rival-01, equally dividing costs and profits with Turnstone Biologics. In return, Turnstone receives $120 million in initial and milestone payments, and equity investment from Takeda.

Sammy Farah, CEO of Turnstone, says in a company statement released through BusinessWire that, “this partnership allows us to co-develop and co-commercialize Rival-01 together with Takeda, enabling us to broaden our internal capabilities and expand our viral immunotherapy pipeline, while retaining our ability to independently develop other candidates based on this technology.”

Takeda Pharmaceuticals has a number of cancer drugs approved and in its pipeline, including immunotherapies. The agreement with Turnstone is expected to expand its cancer drug offerings, with a different approach to immunotherapies. “Our partnership with Turnstone,” says Chris Arendt who head’s Takeda’s oncology drug discovery unit, “and its vaccinia virus platform will help us harness the power of the immune system in unique ways to address some of the most difficult-to-treat cancers.”

The companies are also expected to collaborate on development of new products from Turnstone’s vaccinia virus platform, with Takeda given the right to license new treatment candidates from that platform, and Turnstone retaining ownership of other candidates. From this extended collaboration, Turnstone will be eligible for $900 million in development, regulatory, and commercial milestone payments, as well as royalties on sales.

Turnstone Biologics is a five year-old company founded by cancer researchers John Bell of Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, David Stojdl at University of Ottawa, and Brian Lichty of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

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