Posted Mar. 13, 2017 at 6:20 a.m.

Immunology synergy drives Heat Bio's acquisition play

Published: 2017-03-13 06:20:00
Updated: 2017-03-13 06:20:00


Sometimes the “Valley of Death” can yawn wide and deep for pre-revenue life science companies, especially those trying to get a pharmaceutical to market.

And sometimes that requires some creative juggling to do expensive things with limited funds. Durham-based Heat Biologics is a case in point.

When Heat licensed the immune system stimulating technology behind its ImPACT and ComPACT platforms from the University of Miami, it also licensed the tech behind Pelican Therapeutics Inc.

“But we couldn’t afford to develop both, so we spun off Pelican and funded that company independently,” said Heat CEO Jeff Wolf in an exclusive interview with the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.

Early in March 2017, Heat acquired an 80 percent controlling interest in Pelican. The company said combining its technology with Pelican’s and possibly other immunotherapies provides a synergistic treatment expected to be more effective than those used alone.

Pelican’s T cell co-stimulator PTX-25 has the potential to boost the durability of T cell response when used with Heat’s other technologies, for instance.

“Not only our technology, but any immunotherapy works best with other synergistic immunotherapies,” Wolf said. “That’s why we re-acquired Pelican. So it’s not going to be one treatment, but multiple ones. We’re developing a portfolio of therapies that combine for a more lasting and sustained benefit against cancer.”

Pelican funding from Texas cancer institute to help fund clinicals

Austin-based Pelican’s funding includes a $15.2 million New Company Product Development Award from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT). The highly competitive CPRIT awards include rigorous vetting of a winning firm’s technology.

That should enable the company to advance multiple products through preclinical development and at least one program through a 70-patient Phase 1 clinical trial, Heat said.

NCBiotech provided early support

After Heat was founded in 2008, the North Carolina Biotechnology Center helped recruit the company to the state and provided Heat its first outside funding, a $225,000 Strategic Growth Loan. That opened doors to more investment opportunity for Wolf. Heat was able to repay the loan well ahead of schedule as other investment support came in. NCBiotech also supported the company with its first offices in North Carolina, plus an internship and early business connectivity.

The connections between Heat, Pelican, and Shattuck Labs, a firm developing technology licensed from Heat, include the chair of Heat’s scientific and clinical advisory board, Taylor Schreiber, M.D., Ph.D. Schreiber, formerly Heat’s chief scientific officer, now holds that position at Shattuck. And he is also chair of Pelican’s scientific advisory board.

Schreiber an originator of Heat technology with Miami's Eckhard Podack

Schreiber, co-inventor of significant elements of Heat’s ImPACT and ComPACT immunotherapy platforms, worked with the original inventor of Heat’s technologies, Eckhard Podack, M.D., Ph.D, at the University of Miami’s immunology department, a leader in the field. “We hired him (Schreiber) directly from the university,” said Wolf. “He knows the technologies well.”

Wolf said that while Heat (Nasdq:HTBX) saw disappointing results from its Phase 2 bladder vaccine trials in November 2016, which slammed its stock price and led to a 22 percent staff reduction, the company is continuing to monitor patients for two years. He added that the trial did show an increase in patient T cells and in their activity at the cancer site.

He also said Heat’s small-cell lung cancer trials “are generating positive results so far. We’re looking at making an announcement and more results later this year.”

Wolf said Heat believes its ImPACT and ComPACT technologies are platforms that can be applied to many forms of cancer and possibly infectious diseases.

In late 2016 Heat formed the wholly owned subsidiary Zolovax in Durham to apply its technology against infectious diseases, including the Zika virus.

The Zika program emerged from the same laboratory that originally developed Heat’s current platform technologies, and will be developed at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

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