Weakening tumours to allow the immune system to battle cancer
START-UP NATION/TriMod Therapeutics:TriMod Therapeutics aims to develop a new form of treatment that will specifically target tumours without the need for debilitating chemotherapy, writes PAMELA NEWENHAM
IT IS estimated that 30,000 Irish people will develop cancer this year, with one in three getting the disease during their lifetime. Irish start-up TriMod Therapeutics is using technology in the hope of developing a new form of treatment for the disease.
The company, which raised €750,000 in seed funding last year, is currently performing pre-clinical studies.
Set up by Dr Jeremy Skillington and Prof Kingston Mills of Trinity College Dublin in early 2011, TriMod aims to enhance a patient’s immune response to target tumours.
The company’s TriMoVac technology uncloaks the tumour, allowing the immune system to see it, then attack it, says Skillington.
“The net result is a weakened tumour that is now more susceptible to attack by the strengthened immune response.
“Importantly, this approach, similar to many infectious disease vaccines, generates an immune memory response. If the cancer returns, then the immune system is primed to recognise it and kill it.
“Essentially, the technology is the combination of two molecules . Prof Mills discovered that this combination switches the immune system to generate a profound anti-tumour response. TriMod is now developing this further to bring into the clinical stage and treat cancer patients.”
In simple terms, using the patients’ own immune system, the innovative technology will specifically target tumours without the need for debilitating chemotherapy, Skillington says.
“The difference between chemotherapy and our treatment is that chemotherapy kills fast- growing cells, so it will kill good and bad cells. The TriMoVac therapy helps the immune system to selectively target the tumour directly. The therapy effectively helps the body help itself.
“The good thing about this form of treatment is that there are potentially a lot less side effects. You don’t have to take medication every day or week and your hair won’t fall out. It also prevents relapse as the immune system will be on guard if the tumour comes back.”
The company came about in 2011, two years after Skillington returned home from the US, where he had been working for biotechnology firm Genentech. Skillington began working for Ospona Therapeutics, of which Mills is also co-founder.
Mills, a professor of biochemistry and immunology, had initially developed the technology in his academic lab, and the two set-up TriMod to develop it independently.
At TCD, Mills had been examining chronic infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis for years, studying how they evade the immune system.
Tumours use related mechanisms to evade the immune system, so it was a natural progression to study cancer.
The company is collaborating with several international biotechnology and pharmaceutical firms that have the molecules needed to develop the therapy.
Kingston has tested the principles in animal models of disease and generated very good data in melanoma, colon cancer and lung cancer.
“Biotechnology is a highly regulated industry. Understandably, there are a lot of boxes to tick before putting anything into humans.”
Initially, TriMod will be focusing on melanoma but it has the potential to treat many cancer types.
“Melanoma is becoming more and more prominent in Ireland. Cancers take many years to develop and the thinking is that absence of sun cream on foreign holidays in the 1970s and 1980s is only now having an impact.”
The technology was tested on an aggressive melanoma mouse model, with 40 per cent of mice eradicating the tumour.
“Importantly, when you reintroduce tumour cells into the mice who have already eradicated it they immediately reject it,” says Skillington.
“A memory response had been generated which is important in preventing relapse”.
In 2011, the company became part of Enterprise Ireland’s High Potential Start Up (HPSU) programme. It is also part of the Polaris Ventures Dogpatch Labs Europe community for Entrepreneurs.
Investors include Oyster Technology Investments, Enterprise Ireland and Opsona Therapeutics.
TriMod will be seeking Series A financing of €7.5 million in 2013 to fund further growth and bring its cancer therapy into clinical testing, according to Skillington.
“There isn’t just the financial reward for developing alternative cancer treatments, there’s also the humanitarian reward, as so many people are affected by the disease.”
If the cancer returns, then the immune system is primed to recognise it and kill it