Oncolytic viruses have long held promise for treating cancer, but their first generation has yet to work. Armed with new tools and technologies, including 3D printing, Humane Genomics is part of a wave of companies working with Oncolytic Virus 2.0.
The only FDA-approved oncolytic virus is Amgen’s Imlygic, which was a benchmark for melanoma treatment in 2015. Based on a herpes virus, the treatment is injected into tumors, where it replicates and produces GM-CSF, a protein that stimulates the immune response.
Imlygic doesn’t work on metastatic diseases, however, and cancer-killing viruses as a whole face different hurdles. A big hurdle is administration: viruses must be injected directly into tumors because the immune system can capture and destroy them before they reach cancer cells when given intravenously. Another challenge is efficiency. Treatments alone do not seem to work well and several companies are investigating combinations such as checkpoint inhibitors and other immunotherapies.
New York-based Humane Genomics is building a platform that can redesign, manufacture and test cancer-killing viruses faster and more cost-effectively than other methods.
“We can 3D print or synthesize DNA from a computer file,” said Peter Weijmarshausen, CEO of Humane Genomics. “We take a file with A, G, C, and T in the correct order and put it into a machine that produces DNA fragments,” he added, referring to the nucleotide bases or letters that are the building blocks of DNA.
Human Genomics aims to develop viruses that not only save cancer cells, but also save healthy people, but can also carry drugs to enhance the virus’s action or boost the immune response against the tumor.
Weijmarshausen co-founded Humane Genomics with Andrew Hessel and Chad Moles, the company’s scientific director, who focused on synthetic virology during his BA in biotechnology. The company has raised $125,000 in start-up funding from Y Combinator this year and is expected to raise more after showing its work to investors at the startup’s Demo Day next week.
“It turns out that producing a virus that is very good at identifying and killing cancer cells requires some technology,” Weijmarshausen said. “It’s not that we didn’t know how to do it, but until recently, science didn’t have the tools to do it right.”
Instead of modifying natural viruses, such as herpes virus or vesicular stomatitis virus, to fight cancer and tolerate possible compensations or side effects, Human Genomics selects the most desirable traits found in natural viruses and uses them to build synthetic viruses.
The company is developing its first programs to treat bone cancer, liver cancer, small cell lung cancer, and a form of brain cancer called glioblastoma. It all starts with these cancers because they are rarer and don’t have good treatments, said Weijmarshausen.
In the short term, Human Genomics will work on experiments to prove that its viruses work in mice. She also looks for partners in institutions that treat patients with the types of cancer of interest to her.
In addition, Weijmarshausen considers synthetic oncolytic viruses as personal treatments that must be implemented in addition to routine blood tests to detect early signs of cancer.
‘Based on this detection in blood, we already know how to make a virus that can cure this form of cancer. We have it, or we have it on the shelf, and you have a chance,’ he said. “You can catch the flu for a few days, but without realizing you have cancer, the virus has killed you.”