Cancer has a new enemy, raised in a pristine lab in Belfast

17 Oct 2017

From left: Dr Karl Mulligan and Dr Robert Ladner, co-founders of CV6 Therapeutics. Image: TechWatch

CV6 Therapeutics is developing next-generation cancer treatment, and it is looking backwards to make the future better. Emily McDaid reports.

CV6 Therapeutics doesn’t replace traditional chemotherapy; instead, it makes it work better.

The trouble with cornerstone chemo treatments, CV6’s founders tell me, is that more than half of people who receive traditional chemo won’t benefit from it, due to intrinsic drug resistance. There’s also acquired drug resistance over time, after the medication has started.

CV6 has discovered innovative new drug targets that exploit vulnerabilities in cancer cells by overcoming key drug-resistant mechanisms.


Image: TechWatch

From the US to the UK

The story of CV6, about cooperation between American and Northern Irish institutions to fight a worldwide disease, is a fascinating one.

The company has extensive connections within Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), and has a joint collaboration project supported by Invest NI and the European Regional Development Fund.

In a significant advancement for Northern Irish medicine, the second quarter of 2018 will see CV6’s treatments trialled in around 130 patients to be initiated at Belfast City Hospital. The first in-human study of CV6’s new compound will see it tested for safety, as well as initial indications of efficacy.

Co-founder and CEO Dr Robert Ladner said: “Patients will enter the trial at three sites in the UK and three sites in the US. We are working in concert with Prof Richard Wilson, director of the Northern Ireland Cancer Trials Network, who will lead the clinical trial.”

‘Our drug works against multiple cancer types. Millions of cancer patients globally could benefit from this drug’

Ladner’s backstory unfolds. American-born, he was recruited to Belfast from the University of Southern California. “We’re effectively a spin-in,” he said.

Ladner has paired with local co-founder Dr Karl Mulligan, a scientist-turned-entrepreneur who some years back was part of a diagnostic start-up acquired by Almac.

Because CV6’s compound improves the efficacy of traditional chemotherapy – some of which was invented in the 1950s – it has a broader application than some of the next-generation treatments out there. This is why, when I asked Ladner to define his market size, he told the truth.

“Our drug works against multiple cancer types. Millions of cancer patients globally could benefit from this drug,” he said.

Precision medicine

Working on broad-spectrum treatments, CV6’s product, although related, lies in contrast to a new brand of medicine called precision medicine, which uses biomarkers to pinpoint types of tumours with specific genetic mutations.

Although promising, Ladner and Mulligan indicate that true precision medicine is limited to a small number of drugs in market. “Currently, there are relatively few medicines with FDA-approved companion diagnostic biomarkers – only around 16,” said Mulligan.

Ladner got more specific with market size figures: “New targeted therapies often impact a narrow subpopulation of cancer patients. In contrast, our compound works with drugs that have application across multiple cancer types; drugs like 5FU. In total, 4.5m people globally receive these drugs, so the market is very large.”

The CV6 team has taken a meticulous approach to raising funding. “It’s difficult for us to divulge exact figures, but the figure is in the multiple millions,” Ladner said.


Image: TechWatch

Mulligan said: “Oncology may be the biggest area of medicine where precision medicine can help. Some other areas include cystic fibrosis, where drugs are targeted at patients with specific genetic mutations. The rationale is about making treatments more specific for patients. A well-known example is Herceptin, a breast cancer treatment targeted at HER2+ tumours and useful for around 20-25pc of breast cancer patients.”

Ladner added: “If you go back 20 years, there was an optimism that low-toxicity, targeted medicines would replace traditional medicines completely – but that has not happened.

“Now what we’re seeing more of is tailored cytotoxic medications used in conjunction with targeted medicines or immunotherapy.”

Homegrown market

Gaining access to all the world’s population is not easy, and will require strong international collaboration. Ladner is clearly excited to bring this progress to Northern Ireland.

He said: “We’re giving the NI populace a first chance at a well-thought out therapy. Access to this type of homegrown medication is not common here. Additionally, in terms of academic currency, this trial is very important to QUB.”

Mulligan added: “Our drug has the potential to make a global impact in the oncology market and improve a huge number of patients’ lives in a very real way.”

Ladner concluded: “Our treatment improves the efficacy of the most widely used standard of care cancer drugs. It’s going to take several years of trials before it’s on the open market, but we are very optimistic.”

By Emily McDaid, editor, TechWatch

A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch

TechWatch by Catalyst covered tech developments in Northern Ireland