Established in 2011 by Punit Dhillon, OncoSec Medical Inc. is a San Diego-based biotechnology company pioneering new technologies to stimulate the body’s immune system to target and attack cancer. Through its proprietary technology, OncoSec aims to deliver safer and more effective cancer treatments that can provide long-term benefits for patients.
To date, study results laid the groundwork for OncoSec’s expansion into new DNA-encoded therapeutic candidates and tumor indications. Data also indicates this platform shows clinical activity as a monotherapy and promise as a combination approach.
BusinessInterviews.com: Can you share how your investigational platform, ImmunoPulse™, works? Is there potential for this platform to work outside the field of oncology?
Punit: ImmunoPulse™ is designed to enhance local delivery and uptake of DNA-based therapeutics directly into tumors to help fight cancer. Genetically engineered DNA is administered or injected directly into a tumor (or tumors). Our technology focuses on the delivery of DNA-based interleukin-12 (IL-12), which is a naturally occurring protein with immune-stimulating functions. Our technology also employs electroporation, which sends a series of short-duration electrical pulses to the tumor. This increases permeability of the cell membrane and enhances uptake of IL-12. IL-12 drives a local inflammatory response in the tumor, and immune cells are educated to recognize the patient’s cancer. Educated immune cells then identify and attack tumors throughout the body.
Right now, our focus is testing our technology in different types of cancer, specifically metastatic melanoma, head and neck cancer, and triple negative breast cancer. One day, we hope to enhance our technology to reach virtually any type of tumor within the body. We’ve seen promising data from our clinical studies, and we will continue to explore the broad applications of our ImmunoPulse™ technology.
Our electroporation platform is versatile and has the potential to deliver different biologic targets to potentially treat other diseases or conditions. A helpful analogy for this theory is: FedEx (electroporation) can deliver different packages containing contents (biologic target), which can be used for various purposes (condition or disease). We are looking at a platform that may have the ability to address different diseases and conditions, potentially opening the door to unlimited opportunities.
BusinessInterviews.com: What are some ways that the immunotherapy landscape has been evolving over the past few years?
Punit: The pace of growth and innovation in cancer immunotherapy is faster than ever before. Immunotherapy treatments have shown a direct correlation in improving survival rates in different cancers compared to conventional therapies (i.e. chemotherapy, surgery, radiation). Since the FDA approval of Bristol-Myers Squibb’s immunotherapy drug, ipilumumab, the field has rapidly expanded. Scientists and doctors are testing several new immunotherapy treatments – as both monotherapies or as part of a combination approach – and seeing encouraging results. The scientific community is starting to recognize the medical and economic value of immunotherapy, which is projected to form the backbone of 60% of all cancer management regimes in the world. This represents a potential $35 billion market opportunity by 2023 — exceeding the peak market value of any previous mega-blockbuster classes. Pharma and biotech companies are working to improve current therapies to make them more accessible, cost-efficient, and easier to distribute. As many key opinion leaders in the field have stated, cancer immunotherapy is being characterized as the best hope for a “cure” for cancer.
BusinessInterviews.com: Why are you keen to tilt the traditional healthcare system? What are some ways that our readers can work to shift the power from the pharma and the healthcare system dictating treatment options to the hands of patients?
Punit: If a patient is diagnosed with cancer, it can be an expensive waiting game, especially when time is not on their side. To take a drug to market, it typically costs $1 billion dollars over the course of at least 10 years. On a regulatory level, we need to expedite the process by engaging the patient community during the FDA approval process. In addition, we should aim to achieve budget efficiencies, shorter timelines, more accessible clinical trials, and more choices that address a patient’s quality of life.
At OncoSec, we want to develop safer and more effective treatment options that can provide long-term benefits for patients. We are pioneering new technologies that take a more targeted approach to cancer care and limit the toxic side effects of traditional methods.
Putting knowledge in the hands of patients is critical to change the way the government, big pharma, and healthcare institutions look at cancer treatment. Patients are taking a more active role in their healthcare decisions, and they are more knowledgeable about available treatment options than ever before. There are several patient communities focused on a various diseases and conditions, and regulatory agencies are starting to take notice and instill change.
BusinessInterviews.com: Why are you a strong advocate for the combination approach and how does this differ from more traditional methods?
Punit: The cancer treatment paradigm is dependent on a multitude of treatment modalities because cancer is very intelligent. A consistent vision among leading researchers highlights a future of cancer care driven by combination treatment approaches. Combination approaches could potentially broaden and increase the percentage of patients that respond to treatment. Preclinical studies show encouraging data that combination approaches can improve a patient’s survival compared to monotherapies or other targeted therapies.
At OncoSec, we have the potential to make an impact and address a great unmet medical need in oncology. The majority of patients with solid tumors who have been treated with anti-PD-1/PD-L1 therapies do not respond to treatment. We believe ImmunoPulse™ IL-12 may address this unmet medical need by increasing the proportion of patients who will respond to anti-PD-1 and other checkpoint therapies.
Preclinical data indicates that local delivery and expression of ImmunoPulse™ IL-12 promotes tumor immunogenicity and increases tumor infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs). As a pro-inflammatory cytokine, IL-12 can promote the recruitment of T-cells to the tumor. By driving T-cells or TILs into the tumor microenvironment, ImmunoPulse™ IL-12 may enhance response to anti-PD-1 and convert anti-PD-1 non-responders to responders.
BusinessInterviews.com: You’ve encountered several roadblocks since first launching OncoSec in 2011. What are the biggest lessons that you’ve learned along the way? If you had to start over, is there anything that you’d do differently?
Punit: Over the past few years, I’ve learned the value of patience. At times, you want to do more than you’re capable of doing. Since our platform technology is so versatile, it’s tempting to pursue all different types of capabilities and indications at once. However, I’ve learned that evolution requires having confidence in clinical data and evidence first. It’s important to understand the core facets of your technology and secure the clinical validation, before embarking into areas of the unknown.
We started by testing our technology in Phase I clinical trials in melanoma and other skin cancers to understand the tissue biology. To date, our study results have laid the groundwork for our expansion into new DNA-encoded therapeutic candidates and Phase II trials in head and neck cancer and triple negative breast cancer. Data also indicates our platform shows clinical activity as a monotherapy and promise as a combination approach. The reality is there’s no way to predict the success of a technology without validating it through clinical evidence first.
BusinessInterviews.com: Can you share your inspiration behind launching Cancer Positive and what you hope to achieve?
Punit: The launch of Cancer Positive was inspired by my own experiences of working alongside people who have been impacted by cancer. I believe that inspiration, strength, and joy can be found in even the most unexpected of places. For me, fighting cancer and empowering those who have been diagnosed is not a job—it is a lifestyle. The organization encourages people to maintain a positive state of mind while living with cancer and share their stories as a way to connect and inspire hope for others. Through Cancer Positive, I hope for us to act as a conduit to connect Cancer Positive members with progressive organizations, unique information, and sources of active advocacy to show that every story has a silver lining.
BusinessInterviews.com: We love that you place great value on helping future leaders overcome challenges through mentorship and education. What are some common obstacles that young entrepreneurs face and how can they be avoided?
Punit: There are obstacles that all of us face in our day-to-day lives, and I believe they can be overcome through the lens of leadership and entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship is mindset; it’s not attached to a tangible organization or institution. Young entrepreneurs sometimes don’t take advantage of their network and communities to realize their full potential or advancing their personal interests. If students are passionate about something, they should seek out experts in their community or participate in activities that are aligned with their beliefs to help achieve their goals.
For those who may not have this existing ecosystem in place, it’s my hope that the Young Entrepreneur Leadership Launchpad (YELL) can one day reach students far and wide to provide resources and mentors to help them fulfill their lifelong aspirations.