Promising early data from Exact Therapeutics’ study
The company is investigating a new ultrasound technology for improved drug delivery.
Exact Therapeutics shared early data from two patients treated in the clinical study ACTIVATE at a Science and Technology event in Oslo this week.
The patients have colorectal cancer with liver metastases, a patient group with a high unmet medical need. They receive chemotherapy in combination with the company’s technology called ACT (short for Acoustic Cluster Therapy). The early results show that the patients had better responses to chemotherapy when their tumours were exposed to ACT.
“Results of the Phase I study have given us several insights, most importantly that the treatment did not reveal any unexpected side effects either on its own or worsen the side effects of chemotherapy in the treated patients. The results also suggest a positive tumour response associated with the ACT treatment. This trial will set the stage for diversifying the use of this technology platform to a wide range of systemic therapies across multiple tumour types,” commented Prof. Dr. Udai Banerji, the principal investigator of the ACTIVATE study.
Seven patients have been recruited to the study, currently active at The Royal Marsden Hospital and Newcastle Hospital. The company is also collaborating with radiologists at Oslo University Hospital to open another study site for Norwegian patients.
What is ACT?
Acoustic cluster therapy is a method for improved drug delivery, by using ultrasound technology and the company’s proprietary product consisting of microbubbles and microdroplets. The microbubbles and microdroplets have opposite charges and therefore form small clusters, which are injected into the patient’s blood.
When these clusters are exposed to ultrasound vibrations, the droplets evaporate into the bubbles and turn into larger “ACT bubbles”. These are temporarily trapped in the patients’ capillaries, the smallest blood vessels in the body. The ACT bubbles can then be manipulated with a different ultrasound wavelength that makes them oscillate. This stretches the wall of the blood vessel and creates shear forces and streaming in the tissue, so that the cancer drug can be delivered effectively to the tumour.
“Targeted ultrasound is an emerging treatment modality with a lot of interest. You need better methods for efficient delivery of drugs to the disease areas. Targeted ultrasound with ACT is non-invasive and can potentially be done for a number of treatments and indications,” commented Per Walday, CEO of Exact Therapeutics.
The Norwegian ultrasound story
There is a solid Norwegian research tradition within ultrasound, both in medical technology and pharmaceutical diagnostics.
For example, the company Vingmed Ultrasound was built on Norwegian science and technology, and established as a start-up in 1986 developing medical ultrasound diagnostic equipment. The company was later acquired by GE Healthcare and this segment today generates 3 billion dollars in revenue.
Another success story is the company Nycomed, which was also founded on deep science in Norway, and created contrast agents in a variety of forms for diagnostic purposes. Nycomed ended up achieving market leadership and was acquired by GE Healthcare. Today, this is a 2-billion-dollar revenue business.
“Norway is a true global leader in this field, not only in technology and science, but also in business. The medtech and pharmaceutical components are key to us. Exact Therapeutics was spun-off from the pharma business in GE Healthcare. We have agreements with GE Healthcare on development and manufacturing. These are the two building blocks and the foundation for Exact,” commented Anders Wold, Chairman of the Board, Exact Therapeutics.
Potential with immunotherapy
The potential of the technology to enhance the effect of a range of cancer immunotherapies will now also be explored, thanks to a grant of NOK 16 million from the Norwegian Research Council.
“The tumour microenvironment plays a key role in the response to cancer therapies, especially immunotherapy. The majority of cancer patients still do not respond to immunotherapy. The holy grail in this field is to make cold tumours hot and the key is to modify the tumour microenvironment. We hope to achieve this with the ACT treatment,” commented Walday.
The research project will be performed in collaboration with the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), the Institute of Cancer Research at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London and the Translational Genomics Research Institute, part of City of Hope, in Phoenix.
Kantar: Few Norwegians know about clinical trials
Almost 7 of 10 Norwegians don’t know about the opportunity to participate in clinical trials.
The annual report Helsepolitisk barometer (Health Political Barometer in English) from Kantar reveals what Norwegians currently think about health politics.
A main finding shows Norwegians do not know what clinical trials are or how to participate in them.
The report is based on a survey conducted with over 2 000 respondents, who are representative of Norwegian population over 18 years old.
Lack of awareness about clinical trials
The population has little knowledge of what clinical studies are, how they are accessed, and if it is a relevant treatment option when diagnosed with cancer.
More than a third of the respondents – 37 per cent – answered they do not know about the routines for clinical trials. In addition, 15 per cent answered, “I am not sure what a clinical trial means” and 16 per cent chose the option “I wouldn’t have known to ask about a clinical trial as a treatment option”.
“If patients don’t know about clinical trials, they won’t know to ask about it either. Clinical studies give access to new treatments. Today, many people don’t have access to clinical trials or don’t know about it. In practice, this creates a class divide,” commented Ketil Widerberg, general manager of Oslo Cancer Cluster.
- Read the story in Dagens Medisin (in Norwegian)
Want more modern treatments
The government should prioritize the use of more modern cancer treatments with less side effects, according to 49 per cent of the respondents.
“Today, most cancer patients need to go through two or three standard-of-care treatments before they are evaluated for precision treatment. Can we as a society move the modern treatments, that precision medicine represent, further into first line of treatment? We need public-private collaboration to develop new cancer treatments to achieve this,” commented Widerberg.
In addition, 38 per cent think giving as good cancer treatment as our neighbouring countries should be the priority. The third most popular option was to prioritize offering more experimental treatment as part of standard care, chosen by 24 per cent of the respondents.
Calling for a Mission on Cancer
An overwhelming majority – 74 per cent – think a Mission on cancer would contribute to improving the lives of people affected by cancer.
“The European Union has launched a Mission on Cancer and set aside a significant amount of money for this. An important part of the Cancer Mission is prevention. Norway can spearhead how to work on cancer prevention and prevention of other diseases,” Widerberg commented.
Taking the leap for cancer research
Anette Weyergang wants to make cancer treatment more effective and match the right patient with the right drug.
“I am motivated by the thought that I can make a difference for someone. It is risky to leave a long career in research and start a company, but if that’s what it takes, I am ready to do it. I believe our research findings can be of value to patients, and I feel obligated to do what I can to transform this into something that can be used.”
Anette Weyergang, Senior Scientist and Project Group Leader at Oslo University Hospital is on the verge of creating a company to bring her cancer research into the world. Her discovery could make a real difference in how novel cancer treatments are used in patients.
“As an academic researcher when you make a discovery, you almost expect there is a team ready to commercialise your innovation. This isn’t the case. You can’t just call up a pharmaceutical company and say ‘Look what I found!’. There is a lot you need to do and document before a big company wants to take your innovation further.”
From researcher to entrepreneur
Many times, it is up to the researchers to take charge of the development of their innovation into a product themselves.
“This is a lot of work and it often feels like having two full-time jobs: being a researcher and a founder. There should be funding for the innovation activities of a project leader.”
Weyergang is a pharmacist by education and has spent her career since 2004 in Professor Kristian Berg’s research group at the Institute for Cancer Research.
“I feel lucky to work in such a group, where excellent research is performed by highly skilled people, with collaborations at the institute and internationally. This has created a drive in me.”
Berg is a well-known name in Norwegian cancer research, especially in methods for improving drug delivery. He has several patents, which have led to the establishment of the two companies Photocure and PCI Biotech. As such, it makes sense that Weyergang also wants to take her research further.
Solving problems for patients
Weyergang’s projects are in the field of translational research. This means that the researchers are constantly drawing parallels between what they discover in the laboratory and what is happening with patients in the clinic.
“I talk a lot with clinicians at Oslo University Hospital, so that I can position my research to make it as relevant as possible for what is happening in the clinic. I ask: What is the current treatment? What problems do the patients have? Why can’t we cure them? How can we solve this? I boil these big questions down into a few concrete hypotheses, perform research and aim to bring my results into the clinic.”
The last 20-30 years, there has been a revolution in cancer treatments. This has led to a wave of new medicines that are much more targeted towards specific cancers.
“Even the most effective new drugs do not work on all patients. We have found a biomarker called RAB5 that we can look at in the patient’s tumour and predict if some of these novel treatments will work or not.”
The biomarker may tell if the patient will benefit from treatment with the antibody conjugates, which is a very popular cancer treatment right now used to deliver chemotherapy to cancer tumours.
Read more about the biomarker here.
How to commercialize an innovation
Initially, Weyergang received coaching from Jónas Einarsson and Øyvind Kongstun Arnesen at Radforsk Investment Fund, who took an interest in the research project.
“They helped us to figure out how to communicate around the project and how it can be possible to make money from it. We realized that this project can make a profit, but that we have a long road ahead of us.”
The project was also selected for the innovation programme SPARK Norway at UiO Life Science two years ago.
“It has been a steep learning curve. We learnt about commercialization through educational seminars and connected with a network with the right competencies. Also, the funding we received has prepared the project for commercialization.”
As of September 2022, the project has been taken up in Oslo Cancer Cluster Incubator, where Weyergang receives business development advice from Thomas Andersson to attract seed funding.
“Attracting investments is difficult right now. The most important thing for us is financing: how to get it, understanding what kind of funding to look for, and identifying who might be interested. We are setting up a company to sell a product and the development of that product will cost a lot of money.”
Calling for more basic research
Norway has a world-class cancer research environment, built upon many decades of excellent research.
“The biggest problem with being a cancer researcher today is financing and long term security. There are permanent positions for scientists, but employees need to acquire the funds for their projects themselves. This insecurity weighs heavily and is the reason many brilliant minds disappear.”
Finally, Weyergang highlights the importance of basic research which is fundamental for all translational research and innovation.
“To develop cancer treatment we need new ideas both within basic and translational research.”