U.K. heavyweight Woodford gambles $25M on controversial brain cancer vaccine

U.K. biotech investment heavyweight Neil Woodford has invested $25 million in the U.S. biotech Northwest Biotherapeutics, gambling that its controversial Phase III study on a new therapeutic vaccine for brain cancer comes up a winner. Bethesda, MD-based Northwest ($NWBO) added that it had also garnered another $10 million from a mortgage on a recently acquired facility in the U.K., where it's been attracting considerable attention for its R&D work.

Woodford has had an increasingly high profile in the U.K. after going out on his own to start C.F. Woodford Equity Income Fund with more than $5 billion under management. The investment guru was a major backer of AstraZeneca ($AZN) during its fight to wrestle free from Pfizer's ($PFE) grip and has been a leading cheerleader behind the Big Pharma's strategy to reorganize and refill its once-weak pipeline. Now he's lending his money and his support to Northwest, which has served as a lightning rod for critics and admirers.

Northwest Biotherapeutics CEO Linda Powers

This new cash will be put to use to expand the clinical program, says the company, with plans for two simultaneous Phase II studies in two different cancers. Linda Powers, the CEO at Northwest Bio, misses no opportunity to tout her late-stage effort, and today's investment move was no exception.

"We anticipate being able to show that DCVax-L can add substantially longer survival, based on experience to date," noted Powers in a statement. "In addition, unlike many products in development, DCVax-L is not limited by either tumor characteristics or patient characteristics. As a result, DCVax-L can potentially address all GBM patients, and all types and grades of glioma patients--not just a small fraction of GBM patients, as is the case with products aimed at just one or a few tumor targets, or one patient type. What is needed is a new and better treatment for all GBM patients--a new standard of care."

About two months ago the U.K.'s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency picked DCVax-L as the first program under its innovative medicines program to see if it can be fast-tracked for patients.

DCVax-L, though, has attracted warring bands of admirers and critics. Powers has fed the controversy with claims that the drug is a blockbuster in the making while spotlighting individual cases where patients have responded to the treatment--a far cry from the clinical trial data needed to make a case. She told Reuters' Ransdell Pierson in a recent interview that the drug is worth more than the $65,000 to $70,000 a year that Merck ($MRK) gets for Temodar, based on the "informal" data gathered so far. Powers has been backed up by EvaluatePharma, which listed this program as one of the most promising in the industry pipeline.

Powers' eagerness to project big future sales of an unproven cancer therapy is exactly why the company often finds itself in the cross hairs of critics like Adam Feuerstein at TheStreet. Dendritic cancer vaccines, which promise to marshal an immune system attack on cancer, have an extremely poor record, as do most cancer vaccines to date.

- here's the release

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