Fresh funds in hand, VentiRx joins AstraZeneca, Ludwig and CRI for combo immuno-oncology study

Yesterday, Seattle-based VentiRx Pharmaceuticals put out the word that it had raised a new round of cash to back an ongoing mid-stage study of motolimod (VTX-2337), its TLR8 cancer vaccine, adding that the biotech had won fast-track status for the program. And today the company is following up with the news that it's partnering with the Ludwig Cancer Research and the Cancer Research Institute on a new immuno-oncology combo development effort with AstraZeneca's hot checkpoint inhibitor MEDI-4736.

Rob Hershberg

In this new deal, says VentiRx CEO Rob Hershberg, Ludwig will put its clinical trial arm to work doing the study, with the biotech and AstraZeneca's ($AZN) MedImmune--also an investor in the biotech--putting up the drugs and supporting the study.

"It's a great opportunity to do combination trials," says Hershberg, an authority in immuno-oncology who's splitting his time with Celgene ($CELG), setting up a new IO center in Seattle that will explore a full range of new therapies, including CAR-T drugs. Already home to Juno, one of the leaders in CAR-T, Seattle's rich network of cancer researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and elsewhere has made the region one of the central crossroads for new development efforts.

Combining cancer vaccines and checkpoint inhibitor programs makes a lot of sense, adds the CEO. On the checkpoint side, responses can be limited to 20% to 30% of the patients, while "vaccines, even when they work, seem to work marginally." Combined, though, a drug can potentially have a much bigger impact on a wider group. And that notion hasn't been lost on the top contenders in the field.

Hershberg isn't saying just how much his syndicate came up with this time, a group that includes Frazier, Arch, Domain, MedImmune and Celgene. It is enough, though, to fund this next round of development. The big Phase II trial with 297 patients--another combo trial with pegylated liposomal doxorubicin in patients with ovarian, fallopian tube or primary peritoneal cancer who have failed prior platinum-based chemotherapy--completed enrollment, with data expected at the end of next year or in early 2016. And Ludwig's plan is to gather data in real time from a single arm study, giving the biotech some insight into the combo's potential along the same time lines.

"Our collaboration with VentiRx is part of a broader programmatic effort to partner with top biotech and pharmaceutical companies to develop novel combinations of treatments that may work better together than each would alone," said Adam Kolom, managing director of CRI's venture fund, in a statement.

- here's the release on the collaboration

Special Report: 2010 Fierce 15 - VentiRx Pharmaceuticals