Intensity Therapeutics, a Connecticut-based biotech company, is taking a different path to cancer treatment, and early data on the treatment’s success rates has already begun generating excitement.
The company has developed a platform that increases drug uptake by tumor cells when anticancer drugs are injected directly into tumors. In mice models, the treatment not only cured over half of animals with colon cancer but also prevented the animals from acquiring the same type of cancer for the rest of their lifetimes.
“What we’re doing with our approach is potentially groundbreaking,” said Lewis Bender, founder and CEO of the company. “We shrink these cancers to zero, and you can’t give the mice the tumor again. They are protected for their whole lives.”
Directly injecting chemotherapy into tumors allows physicians to deliver a higher drug dose to the cancer cell while minimizing systemic side effects, explained Ian Walters, vice president and chief medical officer at Intensity Therapeutics. Scientists have on many occasions tried to inject chemotherapeutic drugs directly into tumors, Bender said. But chemotherapy drugs need to be water-soluble to be injectable, and they are poorly absorbed through the fat layer that surrounds cells, he added.
“What our technology does is temporarily makes the drug soluble in water and in fat at the same time,” Bender said. “The tumor becomes very much like a sponge, and the drug diffuses throughout the tumor very quickly, saturating both the inside and outside.”
Intensity Therapeutics’ method of killing cancer cells also stimulates the immune response to the abnormal cells, Bender said. The immune system recognizes the dead cancer cells and can launch an effective response should it come across similar cells elsewhere in the body.
Bender and Walters presented data demonstrating the efficacy of their platform at last Thursday’s annual Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer meeting. When used to deliver a combination of two drugs to mice with cancer, the therapy led to tumor shrinkage in almost all the animals and cured over half of them.
“Our technology helps the drugs get into the cell, including the nucleus. And once it’s there, [the drugs] can’t come out,” Walters said.
Intensity Therapeutics does not have its own laboratory, but conducts its experiments in labs at the National Cancer Institute and also formed partnerships with researchers at the institute. It has also hired external consultants to sit on its Scientific Advisory Board.
This “virtual company” approach has been an attractive and successful one for many small biotechs, Bender said. Pointing to the company’s collaboration with the Berzofsky lab at the NCI, Bender said his company has been able to leverage the services of an entire lab in the NCI Vaccine Branch for less than the cost of a full-time research scientist.
Walters said the partnership with NCI has been fruitful, with the institute successfully reproducing the very high cure rates first observed as well as determining the precise mechanism of action of the drug. Still, he acknowledged that it is difficult to tell whether the results in mice will translate to humans.
The platform’s success in stimulating the immune response in mice was key to curing the mice of cancer and preventing a recurrence of the tumor, but this may not work as well in humans, said Mario Sznol, Yale professor of medicine at the Yale Cancer Center and one of three scientists who joined the company’s advisory board two weeks ago. In mice models, tumors are just there for a few days so the immune system has not had a chance to recognize them effectively, but this may not be the limiting factor in humans whose immune systems have had a longer time to interact with the cancer cells.
Still, there is value in finding a good way to treat tumors locally, Sznol said.
“We do see people in the clinic where we are not trying to cure them of the cancer anymore. If we can get rid of one or more tumors that is causing them pain or cosmetic disfigurement, that is a very important, useful intervention,” Sznol said.
The company is working to test its therapy in humans within the next six to eight months, Bender said.