University of Rochester "Spins Off" Biotech Company Investors Provide $4 Million to Fund Development of Cancer Vaccines

May 19, 1999

Researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center have perfected a laboratory technique that is viewed as a crucial step toward making vaccines that can prevent or cure several forms of cancer, the university announced today. The researchers, aided by the University and a group of private investors, have formed a new biotechnology company that has begun applying the new technique in an effort to develop cancer vaccines.

The new company, named Vaccinex, is being headed by Maurice Zauderer, Ph.D., and Deepak Sahasrabudhe, M.D., who are both researchers at the University of Rochester Cancer Center. A group of private investors has provided $4 million in start-up funding which has enabled Vaccinex to hire 15 full-time scientists, operating in a 3,500 square-foot facility at the Medical Center, which is being leased to Vaccinex by the University. The location gives Zauderer and Sahasrabudhe the flexibility to continue their research in the Cancer Center while spending part of their time guiding the development of Vaccinex. Zauderer hopes Vaccinex will be able to begin human trials of its first cancer vaccines within three years.

"We are eager to help our researchers move their discoveries from the laboratory to the clinical arena where they can benefit patients," said Jay H. Stein, M.D., senior vice president for Health Affairs at the University of Rochester and chief executive officer of the University of Rochester Medical Center and Strong Health.

New laboratory technique puts cancer vaccines within reach

Traditional weapons against cancer include chemotherapy, radiation treatment, and surgery. But in recent years scientists have been working to add another weapon to their arsenal - your immune system.

The immune system is composed of cells that patrol the body, hunting down and attacking intruders such as bacteria, viruses, and parasites. It's so efficient at ridding the body of "bugs" that scientists have long wished that they could make it attack cancer cells. But there's a problem: Cancer is made of the body's own cells, so the immune system does not recognize cancer cells as intruders that it should attack.

But research has revealed that cancer cells have a small number of molecules on their surface, called antigens, that certain cells in the immune system are able to recognize as foreign. While hundreds of different antigens may speckle the surface of a foreign invader such as a bacterial cell, only a few antigens reside on the surface of a cancer cell.

"Somewhere among the body's ten billion immune cells there are likely to be a few that will recognize that a tumor is a dangerous invader," explains Zauderer. "The problem is that those immune cells may never cross paths with the tumor, or are so few in number that they can't mount an effective defense."

The aim of Zauderer's research has been to find a way to help the immune system recognize cancer cells as invaders, and then to help it mount an all-out attack on them. He has developed a laboratory technique that enables his team of researchers to search the surface of cancer cells and locate the antigens that the immune system can recognize as foreign. Zauderer has filed for a patent on the new technique, which he has named Antigen Discovery Process.

Vaccinex scientists are using the Antigen Discovery Process to hunt for antigens on the surfaces of a variety of cancer cells, including cancers of the lung, bladder, and prostate. The process allows the researchers to identify the gene that produces each antigen. Those genes will then be used to make a vaccine that, when injected into the body, causes tens of thousands of harmless cells to produce copies of the cancer cell's antigen on their surface. With an abundance of those antigens present in the body, Zauderer anticipates that the immune system will be roused into mounting an aggressive assault on the tumor. Early tests vaccinating mice have proved promising.

Zauderer says that the Vaccinex scientists are hoping to develop vaccines that work in all patients with a particular form of cancer. It may turn out, however, that some people have unique antigens on their tumors - that is, antigens that are not shared by tumors of the same type in other people, and so wouldn't respond to a general vaccine. For these people, the Vaccinex scientists will try to streamline the Antigen Discovery Process so that they can make customized vaccines that are tailored to fight a patient's specific form of cancer.

Vaccines are, in general, most effective when given to someone before they become infected with the disease. In most cases doctors vaccinate children long before they are ever exposed to infection. However, because cancer progresses relatively slowly, it may be possible to administer a cancer vaccine after a patient has been diagnosed with cancer. Human trials of the first cancer vaccines will focus on whether such post-infection vaccination is successful.

The Antigen Discovery Process has other possible applications. Vaccinex is exploring opportunities to partner with other biotech companies in order to identify major antigens and to develop vaccines against complex viral, bacterial and fungal pathogens, including AIDS and tuberculosis.

In addition to capturing the attention of private investors, Vaccinex has received more than $800,000 in grant funding from federal agencies including the National Cancer Institute to help speed the development of its cancer vaccines.

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