One cancer therapy for many

08 April 2015 | EntrepreneurshipResearch
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Unum's technology combines antibodies (depicted in gray) and T cells (depicted in gold) to attack cancer cells

NUS spin-off Unum Therapeutics and its promise of harnessing the immune system against cancer have caught the attention of editors at the prestigious Nature Biotechnology journal. The start-up's platform is based on groundbreaking research on the Antibody-Coupled T-Cell Receptor (ACTR) by NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine Department of Paediatrics' Professor Dario Campana. 

In his research, Prof Campana, Unum's Scientific Co-founder, has shown that T-cells'a type of white blood cell'can be engineered to target and kill tumour cells. Together with the team at Unum, the Mrs Lee Kong Chian Chair in Advanced Cellular Therapy is developing one-cell therapy that can be used in combination with a variety of antibodies to attack different kinds of cancer. Other approaches require separate cell therapies for each cancer type.

Nature Biotechnology's 11 "academic spinouts of 2014 including Unum'which were mentioned in the journal's March 2015 issue'had their roots in academic institutions around the world. They were chosen based on two criteria: assessment of their research; and the first round of significant venture capital funding'otherwise known as series A funding'they had raised, as a gauge of commercial excitement.

The company, whose name originates from the motto, e pluribus unum, meaning "out of many, one, aims to develop one form of cell therapy that can treat many different types of cancers. Unum's approach to cancer treatment harnesses the power of patients' immune cells to recognise and attack tumours, a method that has generated remarkable responses in patients with advanced cancer.

"It is a great honour to be among this selected group of new biotechnology companies which has generated much visibility for Unum. The technology behind Unum was largely developed at NUS, where we were able not only to quickly license it but also translate it into clinical application, said Prof Campana.  

In December 2014, a Phase I clinical trial began to examine the feasibility, safety and potential efficacy of this therapy, which targets cancers expressing the CD20 protein such as chronic lymphocytic leukaemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The study is being conducted at the National University Hospital and Singapore General Hospital, while the Haematology-Oncology Research Group Trial Unit within the National University Cancer Institute, Singapore (NCIS) manages and supports the clinical trial studies. Lee Foundation/ Viva Foundation and NCIS have provided funding for the study.

The NUS Industry Liaison Office has filed a provisional US patent for the ACTR technology, together with St Jude Children's Research Hospital in the US, where Prof Campana began the research. The technology is now licensed to Unum Therapeutics.