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For Vascular Biogenics, cancer fight is all personalized

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Friday, June 25th, 2010

As reported in IVC: CEO Prof. Dror Harats: We now talk about treating the cancer environment and the blood supply to it.

What will cancer treatments look like in ten years and how they will differ from contemporary treatments is the business of Vascular Biogenics Ltd. Founder and CEO Prof. Dror Harats. He is also the director of the Bert W Strassburger Lipid Centre at the Sheba Medical Centre Tel Hashomer and a professor of medicine in the Departments of Internal Medicine and Biochemistry at the Sackler Faculty of Medicine of Tel Aviv University. He will try to provide some answers at the Israel Life Sciences Industry (ILSI) 2010 Biomed Conference in Tel Aviv.
In an interview with “Globes”, Harats said, “In recent years, there has been a better understanding of the biology of cancer. We no longer look only at the tumor cells in isolation, but look at cancer as an organ. We therefore now talk about treating the cancer environment and the blood supply to it.”

“Globes”: Is there a problem with current treatments?

Harats: “Classic cancer treatments including toxic chemicals (chemotherapy) try to kill the cancer cells. They do more harm to dividing cells than to non-dividing cells, so they proportionally kill more cancer cells than other cells. This treatment has been used with varying success to date, depending on the type of tumor. The problem is that it also harms the dividing cells and the side effects are very debilitating. Furthermore, tumor cells are resistant to these treatments.

“The second classic cancer treatment is radiotherapy, and although it was developed for very targeted treatments directly on the tumor, it still does not solve the problem of cancer that spreads and the cost is damage to tissues.

“Even with innovative treatments that target a tumor’s blood supply and/or targeted treatments which extend a patient’s lifespan, the tumor can usually overcome them.”

What will be the future direction of cancer treatment?

“The first direction is personalized medicine. As I said, there are treatments that in some cases extend a patient’s lifespan, it may be possible to select in advance the treatment that will extend the lifespan of a particular patient, and not waste a patient’s expensive time and extensive resources on ineffective treatments. It will also be possible to know in advance whether a patient will not respond well to a treatment, and save him or her unnecessary side effects.”

Harats says that Vascular Biogenics uses a virus to transfer genes. “To ensure that the virus does not cause disease, the genes that allow it to multiply are first removed. They are replaced with artificially implanted genes that are comprised of two parts of a person’s gene. The first part that is expressed in the cell is the gene that causes apoptosis (programmed cell death). This is an important biological process, because the cells in our body constantly die and are replaced. Cancer cells, in contrast, have developed a method to bypass apoptosis. The gene that I’m talking about is a strong gene that every cell that expresses it knows to die.”

He adds that the side of the gene is the TNF receptor, a substance that a tumor produces to grow as a parasite on the surrounding tissue.

“We trick the tumor, because the TNF receptor now produces our gene,” says Harats. “This entire mechanism is controlled by the genetic engine, and the specific genes are director to the tumor’s new blood vessels. We took what nature does – control on gene expression in the blood vessels – and improved it to express only the tumor’s new blood vessels.”

Harats adds that Vascular Biogenics offers technology that will often be able to replace surgery. As he put it, “A biological knife will replace the surgical scalpel.”

Harats explains, “The material will be intravenously injected into the bloodstream to reach the entire body, where it will be expressed in the tumors’ blood vessel and asphyxiating them by depriving the tumors of oxygen. The idea is to change the cancer from a malignant killer disease into a chronic illness.”

Vascular Biogenics’ technology has been successful in animal trials, and the company has also successfully completed a Phase I/II clinical trial of its cancer drug VB-111. It now plans to begin a Phase II clinical trial, and if all goes according to plan, the drug will reach market in 2013-14.

Do you plan to bring the drug to market?

“We’re a company that focuses on developing the products up to the advanced stage. I think that progress needs to be made in development because this boosts the value of the product and the company, and development will be carried out in Israel. Obviously, at some point we’ll need strategic partners.

“In any event, I hope that a real biotech and pharmaceutical industry will develop in Israel and stamina is needed to achieve this.”