Cure for cancer likely just five to seven years away: AUT prof

A New Zealand-developed medical technology that could help cure cancer has made a breakthrough in the US.

Kode Technology, founded by its chief executive, AUT engineering professor Steve Henry, has become the first company in Australasia to secure a spot in the world-leading Johnson & Johnson Innovation's "JLABS" facility in Houston – a giant research centre run by the pharmaceutical multinational to foster innovation.

Kode Technology, which was developed by Prof Henry, is not a drug or a cure in itself. Rather, it's a "platform" that can be licensed by biotech and pharma companies, which in turn use it to develop new therapies.

Prof Henry has already signed a number of licensees including UK biopharmaceutical outfit Agalimmune, in a deal worth up to $US31 million in milestones and upfront payments, with royalty payments on top.

The largest shareholders in Kode are Prof Henry and Kode chairman and venture capital investor David Ross (who jointly hold around 25% of the company), a holding company whose backers include Mr Ross, NBR Rich Lister Sir David Levene and others (13.44%), former Zespri executive director Eric Henry (11.83%) and AUT (5.38%).

Prof Henry says at this point an IPO is not on Kode's radar. The company is likely to pursue another round of private equity funding shortly.

How it works
On a very broad strokes level (see video explainer below), cells connect to each other using different shapes. The technology developed by Prof Henry at AUT can "paint" over these shapes and make cells act differently.

The most high-profile use of the technology is in a cancer therapy AGI-134 – a molecule developed by Kode – which changes the appearance of cancer cells, making them take on the appearance of an animal cell, which the immune system already knows how to reject. This kills the cancer that was injected but more importantly teaches a body how to find and kill any other tumours.

"We at Kode invented the molecule AGI-134, which is the active component in this therapeutic," Prof Henry says. "However, Agalimmune in the UK discovered the ability to use that molecule to actually treat cancer."

Cure for cancer five to seven years away
"l believe that in five to seven years, almost all cancers will be able to be cured," Prof Henry says.

"There are many immunotherapies that are fairly well-developed within this sector. It's not just us. There's a lot that's been learned very recently; a lot of exciting stuff. Hopefully, we will be a major contributor."

He puts the odds of a cancer breakthrough in the next five to seven years at "greater than 50%".

"Most people aren't aware that a cure for cancer is so close," he adds.

"So much is now known about it, the immunology of it. It's just a natural progression.

"There may be some surprises but the walls are starting to come down."

Human trials next year
Long-time medical observers will be a little wary. Cancer has been cured thousands of times in rats, only for therapies to fail when faced with tumours in humans, which are more complex.

Prof Henry says Agalimmune has completed toxicity and animal testing on AGI-134. He expects human trials to start in the first half of next year.

Initially, Agalimmune will target its therapy at melanomas but Prof Henry says in theory it could be used to treat all cancers.

He says by June/July next year, the first human trial data should be available and there will be the first indication of whether AGI-134 will work on its own, or will have to be deployed in combination with other therapies. It could be that it amplifies checkpoint inhibitors.

Long term, the academic entrepreneur sees a wide range of applications for molecules developed by Kode, including biotech bandages that help wounds heal more quickly.

Bigger than Texas
The academic entrepreneur says securing a spot at JLABS will allow for further uses of Kode Technology to accelerate, Prof Henry says.

“This marks the expansion of our business through our first international subsidiary. Over the first year our priority is to build up our presence in the US and ensure that people know the incredible possibilities our platform provides. One of the great things about Kode is we are a technology that a variety of different industries can use. We don’t make the products – but we license the technology to others to create things that will change people’s lives.”

To secure a spot at JLABS, Kode Biotech had to prove it had a compelling and credible technology, addressed an area of significant unmet medical or market need, and has a strong team and financial record.

Kode Biotech’s operations are located at Johnson & Johnson Innovation, JLABS at the Texas Medical Center, which services about eight million patients a year.  

JLABS is a 3159sq m life science innovation centre, located in Houston, TX. The labs provide a flexible environment for start-up companies pursuing new technologies and research platforms to advance medical care. Through a "no strings attached" model, JJI does not take an equity stake in the companies occupying JLABS and the companies are free to develop products – either on their own or by initiating a separate external partnership with JJI or any other company.

“For us to be selected by JLABS, gives enormous credibility to the potential of our technology. It shows that New Zealand companies can leverage themselves to the world. Most people think you have to leave New Zealand to be successful. We are proof you can do it with a foot still in New Zealand,” Prof Henry says.

Much of Kode Biotech’s core biological research is undertaken by AUT students and postdoctoral researchers at its city campus. In time, it is anticipated that AUT students will also be able to work from JLABS on US collaborative research projects.

Professor Enrico Haemmerle, the dean of engineering and director of AUT’s Centre for Kode Technology Innovation (KTI), says it’s very rewarding to see that a technology created by an AUT professor is getting the attention of such a major player.

“AUT has for a long time recognised the potential of this extraordinary technology, so we are thrilled to see that it is now catching the attention of people on the other side of the world. This opportunity is huge for our academics and students. It means that they can conduct research on the other side of the world with state-of-the-art equipment and with some of the best minds in medicine and technology. Their research is valuable and has impact. The ability to access federal research funding in the US will allow this technology to expand beyond even what we think is possible and hopefully continue to change people’s lives for the better. I couldn’t be more proud of Steve and this major achievement.”

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