Immuno-oncology growing on Horizon

Current and ongoing sales and service projects in IO realm represent nearly 40-percent increase

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CAMBRIDGE, U.K.—Horizon Discovery Group plc has provided an update on the performance of its immuno-oncology (IO) platform, which represents more than £1.5 million in current and ongoing product sales and contract research projects in fiscal year 2017 so far—this represents nearly a 40-percent increase over full-year 2016 revenue for these same products and services. 
“Gene editing is transforming the field of immuno-oncology, and Horizon is at the forefront with its novel target identification, precision validation, high-throughput combination screening and ability to develop proprietary small-molecule, large-molecule and cell therapies for our clients or within our internal R&D programs,” commented Dr. Darrin Disley, CEO of Horizon. “With strong market dynamics, and with most large pharmaceutical companies actively pursuing programs in this area, we anticipate immuno-oncology to be a significant source of growth in the coming years.”
Horizon has built a platform for IO therapeutic discovery to support the large and increasing number of customers actively pursuing programs such as gene editing of immune cells, immune cell assays and screening, cell therapy research and development services and the supply of reference standards for immunology-based companion diagnostics. Horizon wants to broaden this platform by expanding the focus of its pooled CRISPR-screening platform to include immune cells, a technically challenging area. It is anticipated that this approach will drive significant value creation, supporting the identification of new therapeutic targets by providing insights into how cancer is naturally fought in the body—as well as how T cells, natural killer cells and other immune cells could best be used for therapy.
“Historically our client base has been in oncology, and the spectacular results in the clinic with first anti-CTLA4 approaches, and more recently therapies targeting the PD1/PDL-1 axis, have generated enormous excitement,” Dr. Chris Lowe, head of research operations at Horizon, tells DDNews. “The field is now searching for new targets, and there is a lot of interest in the development of biosimilars and repurposing opportunities in this field. Horizon has established a capability that can fulfill the demand for novel high-value targets for the next generation of immuno-oncology therapeutics. We have also built a robust platform to assess the effects of existing agents on components of the immune system and how they interact with each other. This will be of particular value for clients who want to assess repurposing opportunities and assess how their agent will complement PD1/PDL-1 axis therapeutics.”
This platform has recently been used to identify several new gene targets for cancer-cell directed therapies, which are currently undergoing validation. Horizon will explore a variety of routes to capture upside potential in this area, including forging discovery partnerships with pharma and biotech, out-licensing of internally identified targets and potentially spinning off target-related intellectual property into a new venture that would pursue drug and antibody discovery in its own right.
“While we can’t discuss client projects, we are very excited about the progress we are making towards developing assays that allow us to probe deep biology in the tumor microenvironment, such as assays that measure the activity of regulatory T cells and suppressive monocytes,” says Lowe.  “We would like to highlight the progress we have made in establishing a target ID and validation capability in the area, using powerful approaches such as CRISPR/Cas9. We are actively looking for partnerships in this area.” 
“We are keen to drive throughput up and costs down, and are currently gauging how we can best combine our existing automation platform with the new suite of assays to speed the delivery of robust data at an affordable price, from complex biology measured in our IO suite of assays,” Lowe continues. “We have also had a lot of recent success with gene editing in the monocyte model cell line THP-1. This is proving popular with our clients as it is very hard to do.” 
Horizon is also active in the development of immunotherapies through Avvinity, formed in March 2016, which is deploying a powerful and proprietary platform to discover and develop novel IO therapeutics (alphamer-derived DNA Aptamers or antibodies) for cancers of significant unmet medical need. Avvinity is progressing three novel target programs with Horizon owning 30 percent of the equity of the vehicle with the option to increase this to 49.99 percent based on its previously announced funding commitment of £5.3 million, which would take the company through to a significant Series B funding round with third-party investors in 2018/2019.
“Avvinity is actually a partnership between Horizon and Centauri Therapeutics Ltd., a phoenix that has taken flight at Pfizer’s site in Sandwich,” notes Dr. Jon Moore, chief scientific officer and head of translational science at Horizon. “Members of the Centauri team have been responsible for the delivery of several compounds into the clinic, some of which have made it to market as important medicines in anti-infectives. This anti-infective field is Centauri’s primary interest, but their antibody recruitment technology also has applications in cancer and this is the opportunity that is being pursued in the Avvinity partnership.” 

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