Former Spark COO Furey to helm cancer vaccines biotech Imvax

Imvax's new CEO John Furey takes over from interim CEO David Andrews, M.D., the company’s co-founder and chief medical officer. (Imvax)

When John Furey signed on as Spark Therapeutics’ chief operating officer, it was a homecoming of sorts: He had spent the early days of his career in Spark’s native Philadelphia, first at Wyeth and then Pfizer. After steering Spark's Luxturna through FDA approval and launch, Furey left the gene therapy biotech—but is staying put in the City of Brotherly Love as CEO of Imvax. 

After leaving Spark, Furey wanted to “take a step back” and take on some advisory board work, he told FierceBiotech. One of those advisory board positions was at Imvax, alongside a familiar face—Steven Altschuler, M.D., the chairman of Spark, was also on Imvax’s board.  

“A dialogue started with me to come in as CEO of Imvax. I was very intrigued by the potential of Imvax and wanted to take it to the next level,” he said. “We ultimately came to the conclusion that it would be a good thing and I joined as CEO this last week. 

Furey takes over from interim CEO David Andrews, M.D., the company’s co-founder and chief medical officer. A professor of neurosurgery at Thomas Jefferson University and vice chair of clinical services at the university’s Vickie and Jack Farber Institute for Neuroscience, Andrews has worked on Imvax’s lead program, a treatment for glioblastoma multiforme, the most aggressive form of brain cancer. 

The candidate, called IGV-001, is an autologous tumor cell vaccine, meaning it is made using the patient’s own cancer cells. Treatment starts with the standard of care: a surgery to remove as much of the brain tumor as possible. The patient’s tumor cells are then combined with an antisense molecule designed to curb the growth of cancer cells. The vaccine is delivered to the patient through “biodiffusion chambers,” or small devices that stay in the body for 48 hours and release the vaccine. 

“We use the specific genetic information from a patient’s own tumor cells to attack and treat the tumor,” Furey said. 

Imvax presented phase 1b data at the American Association for Cancer Research meeting in March showing that IGV-001 kept cancer at bay and helped patients live longer than the historical standard of care. The study tested four doses of the vaccine in 33 patients with newly diagnosed glioblastoma. After vaccination, the patients underwent standard-of-care treatment, namely radiation and the chemotherapy drug temozolomide. 

The study found that nearly half of the 33 patients saw their tumors stop growing. Patients taking the higher dose lived an average of seven months longer than patients in the historical comparator group—22 months versus 15 months—and went more than three months longer than the comparator group without their cancer getting worse—10 months versus seven months. 

The most dramatic numbers came from a group of patients who had a specific mutation that predicts a better response to temozolomide. These patients went three times as long without their cancer getting worse than patients with this mutation in the historical comparator group: 31 months vs. 10 months. 

The company raised $25 million earlier this year, bringing its total funding to $40 million. The plan is to get IGV-001 into phase 2 in 2020. 

“To complement that, we will also need to build out our capabilities to support that effort. We are particularly looking at expanding our capabilities in clinical development, regulatory management and technical operations,” Furey said.  

Imvax will also start thinking about other applications for its technology. 

“We have early preclinical evidence that this approach can work in other tumors and we would like to advance one or two of those early programs so we can demonstrate that this technical approach is not only effective in glioblastoma,” Furey said.