Consortium consisting of QbD, myNEO, Antleron and VUB receives grant of two million euros for ICON project
The Persomed consortium has received a government grant of € 2,166,892 for its ICON project: the development of an effective personalised colon cancer vaccine that can be deployed on a large scale. The grant from minister Crevits and Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship (VLAIO) is the final go for the partners QbD, myNEO, Antleron and VUB. Persomed aims at a fully operational vaccine by 2024.
The ICON project is a breakthrough in the further development of personalised medicine. This approach strives to offer each patient the right treatment as well as customized medicines. Persomed has developed a customised colon cancer vaccine for individual patients with advanced colon cancer. This vaccine consists of patient-specific immune cells, so-called dendritic cells, which can activate the immune system to recognise and kill cancer cells. The next step is to further develop and refine dendritic cell therapy into an effective, safe and affordable vaccine that can be produced on a larger scale and in a standardised way and can thus be delivered to each individual patient. Persomed is the very first organisation in Belgium that has set such large-scale applicability as the ultimate goal from the very beginning of the research phase.
Normal cells become cancer cells through an accumulation of mutations in the genetic material. These mutations are very cancer-specific and differ from patient to patient. Parts of these mutations, called epitopes, can be recognised as foreign by the immune system. Anyone who can identify and isolate these patient-specific epitopes for targeted treatment may hold the key to the cure. To achieve this, very diverse expertise is required. That is why four partners joined forces in the Persomed project. Thanks to the tumour analysis platform of bioinformatics experts working at myNEO, it is possible to determine on which specific epitopes the research should be focused. Based on their joint expertise, consultancy firm QbD and R&D specialist in cell process engineering Antleron are able to build a validated, scalable and cost-efficient manufacturing process around this. This process, conceptually developed by VUB, consists of reprogramming the patient’s blood cells in the laboratory into powerful immune-activating dendritic cells that will then be administered back to the patient. The immune-activating dendritic cells – created on the basis of the individual genetic mutations – then stimulate the immune system like a vaccine does. This process must be repeated for each patient in order to deliver the personalised cell therapy.
Aiming at 2024
Persomed wants to reach its first major milestone mid 2021: a proof-of-concept and phase I clinical study for at least eight patients. In 2022, the consortium wants to conduct the therapy on a larger group of selected patients. In 2024, the colon cancer vaccine could be ready for applying for official broad use registration. At that time, the developed cell therapy methodology can also be extrapolated to other forms of cancer.
“Flanders is a true biotech region that we can be very proud of,” says Hilde Crevits, Flemish Minister for Innovation.
And thanks to these entrepreneurs, many lives can be improved and saved, both in Flanders and around the world. This ICON project bears witness to a strong urge for innovation. That is something I obviously welcome as the Minister for Innovation. Among other things, the important potential for a cancer cure and the involvement of a world-class VUB research group have convinced the independent experts to support this partnership. I wish the researchers a lot of success.
The road to personalised medicine
Despite the enormous progress of medicine, there is still a limited grip on cancer. According to statistics from 2012, the disease is responsible for 19 percent of deaths in the EU. Bart Van Acker, CEO of life sciences consultancy company QbD and one of the driving forces of ICON:
This makes cancer the second most frequent cause of death, right after cardiovascular disease. Moreover, figures indicate that cancer is taking over the lead.
“The current one-size-fits-all therapies are not sufficient for a large group of patients. The Persomed partners are strongly convinced that a more personalised therapy is the way to stop this disease.” Kris Thielemans, researcher at VUB, adds: “The personalised vaccines that have been developed so far are for many reasons very difficult to use affordably and on a large scale. That is why Persomed has set this very goal from the start of the collaboration.” Bart van Acker concludes: “We are very happy that thanks to this subsidy, in addition to our own investments, we can make a difference. I have been calling for more financial resources for this type of research for some time now. This is one of the signals that the government is becoming aware of the importance of personalised medicine.”
The first research phase of the project will cost more than three million euros, which is covered by the partners and the government grant. “The total development phase will cost several extra millions,” says Jan Schrooten, CEO of Antleron.
The partners will also partially cover those costs, supplemented by additional resources from industrial partners and additional investors. And now that we have all the required resources via the ‘personalized medicine’ ICON project to go full force, we are also looking for additional investors and a full-time CEO.
The elegance of immunotherapy continues to speak volumes. “Using a solution that helps the body clean up the tumour cells itself is more attractive than alternatives such as chemo therapy, which consists of injecting a toxic substance that attacks dividing cells in a non-targeted way,” explains Cedric Bogaert, CEO of myNEO.
Due to the additional individualisation of the treatment, deployed in this project, there will be a second paradigm shift, focusing on the ‘biological passport’ of the tumour instead of the site of origin.