As immunotherapy research blossoms as a new cancer treatment, Princeton-based Advaxis is poised for growth.
Advaxis develops cancer therapies aimed at boosting the body’s immune system to recognize cell mutations and kill cancer cells. It has made strides in cervical and other forms of cancer in joint research with Astrazeneca.
“We’re developing an entirely new line of products that will be off the shelf and that will target multiple mutations that are not commonly noticed by the immune system,” said Robert Petit, the company’s chief scientific officer.
Advaxis is a New Jersey success story. It began as an incubator company in 2005 and went public on the NASDAQ exchange in 2013. Last year, it cut the ribbon on a 20,000-square-foot manufacturing and research space in Princeton that doubled its footprint in the state. The company’s current market cap is $132 million, and recently, it received a $4.8 million tax credit from the New Jersey Economic Development program through the Technology Business Tax Certificate Transfer Program.
The company is developing more than 20 distinct therapies directly or in partnership with various cancer centers and is getting support from advocacy foundations such as the Radiology Therapy Oncology Group Foundation, the GOG Foundation, the Children’s Oncology Group, Brown University Oncology Group and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai. It is also collaborating on research with Bristol Myers Squibb, AstraZeneca and Merck. One of its biggest partnerships was established in 2016, when it entered into an agreement with California-based Amgen to work on ADXS-NEO, a genome-sequencing treatment for cancerous tumors.
Under the terms of the deal, Amgen paid Advaxis $40 million upfront and purchased $25 million in Advaxis common stock. Amgen also funds clinical and commercial activities, and agreed to pay Advaxis up to $475 million in milestone payments, as well as royalty payments. In turn, Advaxis will lead the clinical development of its ADXS-NEO treatment and retain manufacturing responsibilities.
“When I joined the company seven years ago, it was literally a handful of people in a biotech incubator space up by Rutgers University,” said Petit. “We had rented labs and a shared conference room, and the CEO’s office was a sofa.” Today, he said, the company is expanding.
Advaxis’ success story also highlights the state’s support for biotech companies, as it was able to take advantage of tax incentives, as well as seed money from angel investors and hedge funds.
The company originally took immunotherapy research being done at the University of Pennsylvania and is planning to expand that research by turning it into effective therapies. While immunotherapy still is in the research stage, Advaxis has already received testimony from cancer patients that have been treated with immunotherapy.
“I came to Advaxis because the platform that we have here has tremendous potential for a variety of reasons,” said Petit. He added that Advaxis uses a particular bacteria to train the body’s immune system to recognize and kill cancer cells. “Our work allows the immune system to see the cancer in a different light – it allows it to see cancer not as something that should be tolerated, but something that should be eliminated.”
Anthony Lombardo, who came out of retirement at the beginning of this year to become interim CEO after the resignation of its then-CEO, Daniel O’Conner, said that the state’s support of Advaxis is one of the driving reasons why Advaxis plans to stay in New Jersey for the foreseeable future.
“Princeton is home,” said Lombardo. “The company has expanded rapidly over the past two years, and we’ve added 65 people to the organization. We continue to look to incrementally hire people to match our business needs. We’re very happy in this area, and our view is that we will be a long-time New Jersey resident and player.”
Lombardo added that the firm’s symbiotic partnerships with various pharmaceutical companies in the state has also helped it grow and to support their cancer-treating drugs.
“We have partnerships with major pharmaceutical companies where we’re combining [drug] trials with our platform and checkpoint inhibitors,” said Lombardo.
He pointed out that pharma is interested in personalizing treatment.
“Pharmaceutical companies don’t tell you on TV that cancer drugs don’t work in 75 percent of the patients. If you’re a lung cancer patient with certain mutations, for example, those drugs won’t work on you. You need a personalized treatment. Pharmaceutical companies are interested in having other platforms like ours to stimulate the immune system so that their checkpoint inhibitor will be more effective. When that happens, you can really change the paradigm of care,” Lombardo said.