Avila teams with Leukemia & Lymphoma Society on early-stage cancer trial

The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society knows how to be patient.

Over the last 50 years it's backed hundreds of basic academic research projects on blood cancers, many of which required 15 or 20 or 25 years before a few of the most promising could be nurtured into a new therapy.

A few years ago, though, the LLS adopted a new strategy in its fight to get better cancer therapies out on the market. The society began to back preclinical or early-stage development programs at biotech companies, looking to step in at just the right moment with enough cash to get a program through one of the toughest phases of development.

The LLS is on the lookout for experimental drugs which focus on a "clear unmet medical need," says Louis DeGennaro, Ph.D., LLS's chief mission officer. "We're looking for molecules that might be active in blood cancer that are not being developed.

"The commercial success of Gleevec notwithstanding," adds DeGennaro, "it's harder to get smaller companies interested in blood cancers. Because of our domain knowledge expertise, we recognize companies had programs on the shelf that could be active in the blood cancers. Last year we had three partnerships, each of which triggered a clinical trial of an agent that would not have been tested in blood cancers if not for our dollars."

That strategy helped persuade the LLS to announce a new collaboration this morning with Avila Therapeutics. The society will provide $3.2 million to get Avila's AVL-292--one of two lead drugs springing from its covalent drug platform--into the clinic later this year for B cell cancers.

Since its inception, Waltham, MA-based Avila has swiftly scooped up more than $50 million in venture backing to build a platform that revolves around new technology that promises to specifically target proteins in a cell.

The new money from LLS is extremely helpful, says CEO Katrine Bosley, who once headed up business development for Biogen Idec. It will help its researchers as they forge ahead into Phase Ia and Ib trials for a drug that targets the protein Bruton's Tyrosine Kinase (Btk). Meanwhile, an early-stage trial for its other lead program in hepatitis C is scheduled to get started in the second half of this year as well. And it doesn't hurt that the LLS' money is non-dilutive.

It also helps to have a good reputation with the LLS and other societies, particularly when you're tackling two big targets like cancer and hepatitis C, says Bosley. Avila's covalent drug strategy boasts an ability to latch on to disease-causing proteins and shut them down. And it believes that its hepatitis C program--AVL-181--can "work across genotypes and mutations. We have the opportunity to inhibit and bond with each of those different variations."

The same basic approach to protein silencing is being put to work on cancer.

"We like the covalent molecule approach," says DeGennaro, and Btk offers a prime target for blood cancer.

The LLS offers a developer like Avila other strategic advantages, says Bosley. The society doesn't just support patients, it also has "a network of relationships with clinical investigators." The LLS can help make introductions between the biotech and the investigators who can provide important insights on clinical trial protocols.

"They know them all," adds Bosley. And now Avila can get to know them as well. 

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