New personalized cancer vaccine in the making thanks to unique Belgian collaboration

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Lien Lybaert

The young Belgian start-up Persomed is unique – it was founded in 2020 by four partners each with relevant expertise in the personalized immunotherapy field: myNEO, QbD Group, Antleron, and the VUB. Together, the multidisciplinary strength and expertise has resulted in the development of Persomed’s cutting-edge technology platform for personalized cancer treatments. The organization is now at crucial point, raising funds to initiate a clinical trial phase I in a first, urgent-medical-need indication: metastatic colorectal cancer.

Header Image: Lien Lybaert, CEO a.i. of Persomed

Boosting the immune system of patients to fight cancer

“This technology is new and very unique. It has the potential to treat tumors which do not respond to the current standard of care such as radiotherapy, chemotherapy, or even the currently available non-personalized immunotherapies,” says Lien Lybaert (CEO a.i., Persomed). But how does this vaccine work? It is a complicated process based on cell therapy; she explains:

“First, the tumor of the patient is deeply analyzed on the DNA and RNA level, to reveal which neoantigens (tumor-specific antigens) are uniquely presented by the cancer cells. At the same time, monocytes are extracted from the blood of the patient. These monocytes are loaded with tumor neoantigen-encoding mRNA and a strong adjuvant ex vivo – outside of the patient’s body. The resulting activated dendritic cells, loaded with tumor antigens, are then multiplied and re-injected in the patient to evoke an immune response specifically against the neoantigens of the patient’s tumor.”

“This technology is new and very unique. It has the potential to treat tumors which do not respond to the current standard of care.” – Lien Lybaert

Lybaert further elaborates on the specific strengths of the method: “Ex vivo vaccination can have a big impact for cancer patients, who often have a weakened immune system. When these patients are vaccinated with a ‘standard’ in vivo vaccine such as the corona or the flu vaccine, we know that these patients often do not develop a strong immune response, and so the vaccine has a limited effect.”

With ex vivo vaccination, Persomed will kickstart the dormant or suppressed immune system of cancer patients by infusing highly active immune cells. “On top of that, we personalize the vaccine tailored to the mutational profile of the patient’s specific cancer,” adds Lybaert. “This requires a lot of expertise and is challenging both logistically and economically, but our method has the potential to deliver a great benefit, especially for cancer patients who are otherwise out of options.”

Building on the shoulders of four complementary partners

The potential power of cell therapy is huge, but the method often poses significant logistical challenges and comes at a high cost. This is where the combination of the Persomed partners can make a big difference, according to Lybaert: “Bringing a personalized cancer vaccine to the market requires an enormous amount of expertise. There are many hurdles to overcome – it is almost not feasible for one company to tackle these challenges alone. That is why we set up this collaboration: to draw on the complementary strengths of the different partners and create a consortium that is stronger than the sum of our parts.”

The four partners involved each have specific expertise to contribute. First, there is the VUB, with the Laboratory for Molecular and Cellular Therapy (LMCT) from Prof. Emeritus Kris Thielemans, now led by Prof. Karine Breckpot. “They developed the basis for the mRNA dendritic cell vaccine design,” Lybaert elaborates. “The first generation, non-personalized technology has been validated as safe and efficient in four clinical trials with over a hundred patients.” Persomed has built on this validated technology and has now optimized and improved it for personalization.

“Our method has the potential to deliver a great benefit, especially for cancer patients who are otherwise out of options.” – Lien Lybaert

The second Persomed partner, myNEO, is crucial for this personalized approach. The company provides access to a top-notch tumor analysis bioinformatics platform. “myNEO is one of the top experts in the field of finding and selecting the best neoantigens for each patient,” says Lybaert.

The last two partners, Antleron and QbD, focus on the optimization of the manufacturing process. “They are experts in cell therapy manufacturing,” continues Lybaert. “A fast on-the-spot process is very important, but so is the cost. The longer the process takes, the higher the risk that the patient’s cancer progresses or that, in the worst case, they die. On the other hand, the production cost has to be economically feasible. Antleron and QbD are both helping us realize a fast and cost-effective process: Antleron focuses on lab research, to see which steps can be simplified. QbD has specific software, innovation, and in-house experts on ATMP [advanced therapy medicinal products] and is the perfect partner for assuring the quality requirements of our process.”

Funded by VLAIO

In 2019, Persomed received VLAIO funding through ICON; an initiative that later gave rise to MEDVIA – the new Flemish spearhead cluster for health innovation. They initially provided the project with 2 million euros in funding, which was supplemented by Persomed’s partners, who together invested 1 million euros. “In the last three years, thanks to this funding, we have managed to develop and optimize our platform technology and to obtain the regulatory approvals necessary to start our clinical program,” Lybaert says. “Our aim is to initiate the first clinical trial at UZA [the University Hospital of Antwerp] in 2023, treating patients with metastatic colorectal cancer in combination with the current standard-of-care.” Persomed is now holding a Series A investment round to raise 10 million euros.

Read this article to find out more about how vaccines can be used to both treat and prevent cancer!

Unlike a typical pharmaceutical initiative, Persomed was made possible thanks to the combined effort and united vision of four very different members in the ecosystem. The fact that all these partners are Belgian goes to show the strength and diversity of the local life sciences ecosystem. “It is fantastic to be able to work in unison with all these different partners, who each have their own valuable expertise,” Lybaert concludes. “Together, we want to help put Belgium on the map as one of the most important players in personalized cancer vaccines.”