Ultimovacs lays off 40% of staff to survive in wake of cancer vaccine's phase 2 fail

Ultimovacs previously hinted at a dash to preserve cash following the failure of its cancer vaccine in a phase 2 trial. Now, the Norwegian biotech has revealed that 40% of staff will be jettisoned to keep the company afloat next year.

Ultimovacs had been assessing the effect of adding UV1, a candidate designed to induce a T-cell response against an enzyme that is active in most cancer cells, to Bristol Myers Squibb’s checkpoint inhibitors Opdivo and Yervoy. But the long-awaited results in March revealed the study in melanoma failed to hit either the primary endpoint of progression-free survival or secondary endpoints like overall survival and objective response rate.

In a presentation to investors this morning, execs confirmed that an analysis of the trial data “showed no subgroup data of significant relevance to proceed with the development of UV1 in this combination.”

Ultimovacs isn’t giving up on UV1, however. The company is still hopeful for the FOCUS trial of a combo with Merck & Co.'s Keytruda in head and neck cancer, which is scheduled to read out in the third quarter, followed by the DOVACC study with AstraZeneca's Imfinzi and Lynparza in ovarian cancer in the first half of next year. Then there’s the LUNGVAC trial with Regeneron's Libtayo in non-small cell lung cancer, which is still enrolling patients.

“Based on experience from development of other drugs, including checkpoint inhibitors, we must anticipate different readouts in different trials, hence our strategy is to go broad in multiple indications and combinations,” the company explained in the presentation.

But, to make it that far, Ultimovacs has to make some big decisions now. The 40% reduction in head count forms part of “activity level adjustments and operational prioritization” that should stretch out the company’s finances into the final quarter of 2025.

“We remain dedicated to our investigation of the potential impact of UV1 vaccine across several cancer indications and immunotherapy combinations, and we are prepared for both challenges and accomplishments along the way,” CEO Carlos de Sousa said in this morning’s release. “We anticipate potential growth catalysts both in 2024 and 2025.”