Tilt Biotherapeutics, Biotheus team up on tumor-targeting virus

China’s Biotheus picked up the rights to Tilt Biotherapeutics’ lead oncolytic virus program in greater China. Tilt received an undisclosed fee upfront and stands to collect development and regulatory milestone payments as well as royalties. 

Many viruses naturally target and kill cancer cells, and experimental oncolytic viruses are often engineered to improve that ability. That should make them an attractive option to fight tumor cells, which the body normally identifies as “self,” but although they’ve shown promise in animal studies, oncolytic viruses have shown limited effectiveness in human trials. 

Tilt’s pipeline is focused on its eponymous TILT technology, which is based on oncolytic viruses that code for cytokines. The Helsinki-headquartered biotech is developing its lead program, TILT-123, for the treatment of solid tumors, including melanoma, to be used on its own and in combination with other cancer treatments, such as CAR-T therapies, tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes and checkpoint inhibitors. It designed the virus to only replicate in cells with a faulty pathway called retinoblastoma/p16, which is found in most human tumors. The company is testing the treatment in a phase 1 study in France and Denmark. 

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“We are very happy to give our flagship product TILT-123 into the expert hands of Biotheus. TILT-123 is a unique product developed for activation of T-cells, and currently under clinical development in Europe and soon in the US,” said Tilt founder and CEO Akseli Hemminki, M.D., Ph.D., in a statement. “Biotheus has an interesting portfolio of synergic compounds and valuable development expertise in immuno-oncology. We believe that this collaboration greatly supports the global development and commercialization of TILT-123 while making the product also available to Chinese cancer patients.” 

There is only one approved oncolytic virus: Amgen’s Imlygic, a genetically engineered herpesvirus cleared by the FDA in 2015 for advanced melanoma that has recurred after surgery. It hasn’t proven to be a big hit on its own, but it's in multiple combination trials. And there is plenty of appetite for oncolytic viruses from both Big Pharma and smaller biotechs. 

In December, Takeda and Turnstone Biologics inked a $120 million deal to co-develop the latter’s oncolytic virus candidate, RIVAL-01, which is an engineered form of vaccinia that encodes an anti-CTLA-4 antibody, as well as IL-12 and a ligand called Flt3. Astellas has jumped into the space, too, via its venture arm. Astellas Venture Management backed Oncorus, which raised $79.5 million in a series B to move two oncolytic viruses through development.