Targeted drug hopes to have success attacking multiple cancers

A newly formed University of Illinois spinoff company could be on to something good with a new drug treatment for cancer that targets an enzyme commonly found in various tumor types.

Department of Chemistry professor Paul Hergenrother and a handful of other co-founders of Vanquish Oncology are developing compounds that selectively kill cancer cells by targeting procaspase-3, an enzyme that spurs reactions that kill the cancer cell when it’s activated. Procaspase-3 is present in many brain, breast, lung and colon tumors, Hergenrother said.

In preclinical studies, the compounds were well tolerated and efficacious in mice. One clinical candidate, VO-101, also stabilized or reduced tumor size in dogs with metastatic disease, which Hergenrother said better mimics the course of action in humans.


The next steps for the company are to continue preclinical testing and gathering the appropriate data for an IND filing, Hergenrother said, although it’s too soon to piece together any kind of timeline. The compounds could be used as standalone personalized cancer therapeutics or companion drugs to be used alongside other chemotherapy drugs.

“We’re going to go where the data takes us,” he said.

Vanquish Oncology was founded in 2011 by several University of Illinois researchers plus IllinoisVENTURES, a seed and early-stage technology investment firm, and the life science venture company Level 5 Partners.

Global revenues for small-molecule targeted cancer therapies like the ones Vanquish is developing are expected to reach $27.3 billion by 2015, according to a market report from visiongain. But that means there are lots of competitors in the market, especially as the patent cliff for pharmaceutical companies drives commercialization of generics.

Other targeted cancer therapies that induce apoptosis – or cell death – are already on the market, including Takeda-owned Millenium Pharmaceuticals’ Velcade for multiple myeloma and Allos Therapeutics’ Folotyn for peripheral T-cell lymphoma. Plus, startups including West Lafayette, Indiana-based Endocyte are developing their own approaches to personalized cancer treatment.

But a catch-all-type compound that treats several different forms of tumors could set Vanquish apart.

“Many compounds that are approved only offer minimal lifespan expansion,” Hergenrother said. “There’s a lot of room for really good therapeutics and novel approaches.”

[Photo from flickr user]

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