EPITOPEA - A NEW WEAPON AGAINST CANCER
The story of Epitopea achieved something exceptional: this innovation-driven start-up has quickly raised an impressive amount of seed fund to accelerate its impact in the fight against cancer.
CQDM, Oncopole and the Cancer Research Society are proud to have supported the innovative research work conducted by Dr. Claude Perreault and his collaborators, which allowed the development of an internationally competitive approach and contributed to the creation of Epitopea Company, thereby reducing the investment risk required for its start.
Distinguishing Healthy Cells from Tumor Cells – The Innovative Approach of the Project Led by Dr. Claude Perreault
Cancer spreads when the immune system is unable to effectively eliminate abnormal cells. However, the immune system has the ability to fight tumor cells when it recognizes certain tumor-specific antigens (TSAs) on their surface that can activate it. So, which TSAs are best recognized by the immune system? Are they shared by individuals having the same cancer? This is what Dr. Claude Perreault (IRIC) and his collaborators answered:
“My team has developed a unique and global approach that includes two components. The first is to identify TSAs more efficiently and accurately. The second is the development of new in vitro tests that can predict the immune response in vivo. Combined, these two components allow to select the TSAs that are most likely to activate the immune system.”
The approach of the multidisciplinary team led by Dr. Perreault was used to identify promising TSAs for acute myeloid and acute lymphoid leukemias as part of the CQDM-supported project. In parallel, other works carried out by the team have also shown encouraging results in breast and ovarian tumors. This Québec innovation is therefore not only effective for specific tumor types, but also applicable to a broad spectrum of difficult-to-treat cancers.
From Research Project to Company Creation
Rather unusual, the results very quickly led to the valorization of the intellectual property developed by the Université de Montréal and to the creation of Epitopea Company, with the support of IRICoR. The Company’s mission is to make better cancer treatments available by marketing TSA-based vaccines against different types of tumors. This ability to rapidly transfer knowledge and approach is primarily due to the highly innovative nature of the research, which was immediately recognized by several venture capitalists.
As Steven Klein, Epitopea’s Chief Business Officer, states,
“Having licenses under one company, through the creation of Epitopea, facilitates opportunities for collaboration with pharmaceutical companies. Depending on the projects, we have the option of developing elements in-house or partnering with pharmaceutical companies in a collaborative research approach.”
Major Investments to Create a Significant Impact
Since its creation in the spring of 2022, the start-up has raised $14M USD in seed funds, a significant funding for the Company. Strongly backed by 4 groups of investors from Québec and elsewhere, the team has given itself the means to achieve its ambitions.
Thanks to the advances that will be conducted by Epitopea, it will be possible to target several TSAs in the same treatment for a given type of cancer, which will optimize and simplify treatment for patients. Other positive economic and social benefits are expected as the Company intends to continue to expand the range of immunotherapies developed through new discoveries made by Québec researchers.
There are links between university research and the corporate world. Let’s take Matthieu Chartier as an example, whose skills acquired during his doctoral journey in computational biology were crucial for founding his own business. Within the research team led by Prof. Najmanovich and in collaboration with many big pharmaceutical companies, his doctorate “taught him to learn”, as well as allowed him to connect with many key characters in this ecosystem.
Matthieu states that
“many similarities exist between a university research project and managing a business, whether it’s to evaluate the community’s needs, managing resources and deadlines or to solve problems”.
Therefore, advanced studies prepared him well to become the CEO of Fourwaves, a platform that allows researchers to organize scientific conferences and that helps share research projects. In his journey, he combined his two passions: sciences and entrepreneurship!
Thanks to Matthieu for sharing his story with us, which showcases the potential of collaborative research to well prepare the leaders of tomorrow to overcome many obstacles.
MORE SUCCESS STORIES TO DISCOVER!
Would it be possible to detect the disease earlier using the eye? That was the hypothesis posed by McGill University clinical professor Jean-Paul Soucy and the startup company Optina Diagnostics in 2015.
It was at this critical phase in the development of Optina’s innovation that CQDM intervened. With the help of its public and private partners, including the Brain Canada Foundation and the Ontario Brain Institute, the organization granted $1.5 million in funding to enable the company to establish clinical proof of concept.
From Innovation to Therapeutic Application
The hyperspectral camera technology used by the Quebec company, which was initially used for stargazing and industrial applications, had immense potential in the human health sector. At the time and still today, there are cameras to probe the back of the eye, but none offer this level of precision in color resolution.
“Optina’s technology reveals 92 specific color channels compared to the 3 channels offered by conventional retinal cameras, which provides an unparalleled wealth of data. It is then possible to see things that were previously unnoticed,” adds Jean-Philippe Sylvestre, Vice-President of Technology at the start-up.
This wealth of data opens the way, in the long term, to the development of a whole series of complementary tests and diagnostic tools supported by artificial intelligence for a range of other diseases that manifest themselves in the eye.
The Leverage Effect of CQDM Funding
Once clinical proof of concept was attained, the company was in an excellent position to raise a series of additional financings: $4M round led by Zoic Capital in 2018, $25.8M round led by DigitalDx Ventures in 2021 and finally, $3.0M led by the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation in early 2022.
“The support we received from CQDM also allowed us to structure the story to raise additional funding: what clinical value do we bring to the patient and his doctor? What medical needs do we address, beyond the scientific innovation aspect?” adds Marie-Claude Marchand, Vice President of Marketing and Business Development.
Thanks to this extra support, the company was able to carry on developing its technology and strengthen its team.
In addition to accelerating the development of an innovative Quebec technology, this project helped build a whole ecosystem of relationships: “We gained credibility through contact with experts like Dr. Jean-Paul Soucy, Dr. Sandra Black and Prof. Lesage,” explains Mr. Lapointe.
The benefits for the company went beyond the financial aspect: the public-private collaboration opened doors for the Optina Diagnostics team in terms of access to patients and for the realization of other projects.
Ultimately, the benefits for the organization will translate into benefits for people with Alzheimer’s disease and their loved ones: by using the eye as a window into the brain to detect the status of biomarkers associated with Alzheimer’s, the Optina team intends to offer an accessible, non-invasive and reliable diagnostic alternative at an early stage. A potential revolution that would also pave the way for the discovery of innovative treatments by supporting more targeted clinical studies.
Theratechnologies is a publicly traded Québec biopharmaceutical company that was founded in 1993. It successfully commercialized innovative treatments for HIV and is currently developing a treatment for nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). The company recently secured funding from CQDM, among others, in order to expand its innovative activities and accelerate the achievement of scientific milestones.
After focusing on HIV therapies for many years, Theratechnologies ventured into the cancer research sector by acquiring Katana Biopharma in 2019. Based in Montreal, Katana Biopharma is a university spin-off founded by UQAM Professor Borhane Annabi, a leading expert in the development of innovative cancer technologies who built the targeted drug screening oncology platform.
Theratechnologies is currently working with Professort Annabi’s lab to test new therapeutic approaches targeting sortilin-expressing cancers. This project is receiving financial support from CQDM and the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS). Their approach focuses specifically on cancer cells expressing the sortilin receptor, a hallmark of many types of cancer. Their investigational compound, TH1902, is conjugated to a drug and delivers its payload to tumors by using sortilin as a gateway to penetrate cancer cells. This mechanism could improve the efficacy of anticancer treatments, while minimizing side effects in patients.
Their research recently confirmed in vivo efficacy of TH1902 against several types of cancers including ovarian, colon, pancreatic, endometrial, and skin cancer, as well as triple-negative breast cancer. The results to date a very promising. Specifically, sortilin-expressing cancers, including triple-negative breast cancer, are more difficult to treat and are associated with a higher risk of relapse.
As part of their collaboration, Theratechnologies and Professor Annabi pooled their expertise and created a unique approach to oncology treatments. The funds from CQDM and CCS allowed them to expand the scope of their research activities, to explore and develop opportunities which they might not otherwise have considered. Their collective efforts accelerated the development process from early-stage research to clinical testing in cancer patients. These key milestones foster the potential development and future growth of the company.
VLPExpressTM, a discovery platform for new vaccines and therapeutic antibodies, exemplifies the exceptional impact of the support provided by CQDM and a group of partners to develop a therapeutic research and development tool. The first product from this platform is a seasonal influenza vaccine currently undergoing Health Canada approval. VLPExpressTM has also generated a pipeline of approximately ten candidate vaccines and therapeutic antibodies that now extends well beyond the fight against influenza.
A genuine success, VLPExpressTM has demonstrated the breadth of its power during the current COVID-19 pandemic by developing in as little as 20 days a candidate vaccine that has now reached the clinical phase. As the benefits and impacts of the project continue to multiply, they demonstrate the importance of supporting initiatives that stimulate research and innovation, which ultimately leads to the development of tools addressing unmet medical needs.
READ IMV’S SUCCESS
IMV’s collaborative project with Dr. Yves Fradet and Merck:
Development of a new class of immunotherapy for bladder cancer using IMV’s drug delivery platform
IMV developed a technology that generates a targeted, robust, and sustained immune response. This versatile platform called DPX is designed to introduce various targets to the immune system. The Company uses this proprietary technology to develop new classes of immunotherapies and vaccines.
IMV’s most advanced treatment is an immunotherapy shown to be effective in treating ovarian cancer as a single-agent therapy, as well as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in combination of Merck’s pembrolizumab antibody.
To determine if this combination therapy could be used to treat bladder cancer, IMV has partnered with clinical researcher Yves Fradet and Merck. Dr. Fradet is conducting an exploratory clinical trial to confirm if the combination elicits an immune response in bladder cancer patients. This unique combination of IMV’s targeted technology with Merck’s antibody could potentially make this approach more effective than currently available treatments, while minimizing side effects.
This project would not have been possible without this trilateral collaboration that brings together cutting-edge knowledge, innovative treatments and hand-picked expertise: not only is Dr. Fradet an expert in immunotherapy, he is also an uro-oncologist responsible for heading this arm of IMV’s clinical trial. This exploratory study also offers Merck the opportunity to validate its products in a potentially new indication. This project could strengthen IMV’s position as a leader in cancer immunotherapy, while affording the Company a significant competitive advantage in bladder and other cancers. Patients would ultimately draw the most benefit by accessing new and more effective treatments against bladder cancer, with fewer side effects.
Feldan Therapeutics has developed a drug delivery system called the “Feldan Shuttle” designed for the targeted delivery of therapeutic agents into cells to treat, prevent or cure many diseases.
While discussing opportunities with experts from the pharmaceutical community through CQDM, Feldan Therapeutics considered a bold R&D project proposed by one of them. This high-risk high-reward exploratory research project was made possible with funding from CQDM and five pharmas that were interested in the potential impacts of the study. In fact, the outcomes of the project have generated significant interest from the pharmaceutical industry, as such a drug delivery system could improve the effectiveness of their existing treatments.
With the sound advice offered by pharmaceutical industry KOLs as part of the mentoring program, companies aligned their innovations with worldwide market needs, thereby positioning their technology early in the process with leading pharmaceutical stakeholders. The relationships and partnerships established with pharmas build value for companies as they establish numerous lucrative collaborations, for example by adapting a given technology to the specific needs of the pharmaceutical industry. In turn, this promotes future collaborations that feed the growth of companies.