Why is Imvax putting its new brain-cancer vaccine lab in Philly’s old historic district?
by Joseph N. DiStefano, Updated: September 12, 2019- 1:45 PM
UPDATE SEPT. 12: Imvax, which just raised $40 million and hired ex-Spark Therapeutics exec John P. Furey as CEO, is building a lab for its new brain cancer vaccine — not at the University City Science Center in brainy West Philly, nor at one of those county-backed suburban lab centers — but in Philadelphia’s Old City, at the Curtis Building, across Sixth Street from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, and upstairs from Louis Tiffany’s landmark Dream Garden stained-glass mural.
Why there? “We probably saved them over $250,000 per year in rent by locating in the Curtis Center as opposed to a typical lab building,” says broker Tim Conley, managing director at Tactix USA, which represented Imvax.
The Curtis, owned by Bill Glazer’s Keystone Property Group, “was a former printing plant,” once home of the Saturday Evening Post, America’s most popular magazine in the early 1900s, and other Curtis magazines and book-publishing lines. “It had the high ceilings needed for a lab, and vertical penetrations from the now-vacant freight elevators, enabling venting to the roof.”
With floors reinforced to support rows of heavy printing presses, “Imvax could put sensitive analytical equipment and microscopes on the floor and not have the vibrations that newer buildings would have,” Conley concluded.
SEPT. 10: While University City-based Spark Therapeutics awaits regulators’ approval of its landmark $4.3 billion cash sale to Roche Holdings, its former No. 2 executive, John P. Furey, has taken a new job at another Philadelphia gene therapy firm, Imvax, partnering with a couple of doctors at Thomas Jefferson University.
To give Furey fuel to build the firm’s planned vaccine for brain cancer, Imvax plans to announce Tuesday that it has raised $40 million from a group of U.S. and foreign investors to advance work on its planned vaccine for fast-growing, usually lethal glioblastoma multiforme tumors.
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Imvax is developing a vaccine based on the work of Jefferson neurosurgeon David Andrews and immunologist Craig Hooper. The typical patient with the disease is dead in 15 months; the cancer isn’t usually found until it has already spread, so the leading radiotherapy seldom cures.
But 15 of the 33 patients in Imvax’s initial immunotherapy trial — proto-candidate vaccine IVG-001 — “have not seen tumors grow as of March 2019,” more than two years after the trial, Furey said in an interview, citing a report that the founders presented this year at the American Association for Cancer Research. The report also listed no vaccine-related adverse events.
The vaccine is made from the patient’s tumor cells taken while the primary brain tumor is being surgically removed. Imvax’s vaccine uses antisense oligonucleotides designed to alter patient RNA and neutralize tumors. Injected in a patient’s abdomen, the vaccine spreads to fight cancers throughout the body.
Investors include affiliates of Magnetar Capital, the Chicago-based hedge fund that grew rich betting on mortgage failures in the late 2000s and has since diversified to include medical start-ups; Ziff Capital, the New York investment group headed by Dirk Ziff, whose family plowed its former publishing profits from PC Magazine and Car and Driver to create a multibillion-dollar tech fortune; and Switzerland-based Wild Group Management AG, among others.
Peter Corr, former head of global R&D at drug giant Pfizer, chairs the Imvax board and hired Furey.
Imvax currently employs six, but plans to use the new $40 million to beef up its staff and add contractors at its planned headquarters and labs at the Curtis Center office building on Washington Square in Philadelphia’s historic district, Furey said.
Furey, who was born in Ireland and has an MBA from Saint Joseph’s University, spent 20 years building vaccine programs for Wyeth and Baxter International, whose global vaccine business he headed. Baxter’s biotech unit was later sold to Pfizer (then purchased by Shire and is now part of Japan-based Takeda).
Through connections at Baxter, Furey met Jeff Marrazzo, CEO at Spark, and joined that start-up in 2016 to help prepare the launch of Luxturna, Spark’s first commercial product, which cures a rare form of inherited blindness.
“We achieved all that,” so Furey says he decided last winter, before the Roche deal, to leave daily management at Spark and concentrate on “board and advisory” work, a surer road to riches for some pharma executives than the years spent in labs.
Steven Altschuler, the former Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia chief executive who chairs the Spark board, then suggested the Imvax give the job to Furey. “It is a phenomenal opportunity to jump back into an operational role and build the next great company in Philadelphia,” Furey said.
Imvax’s cofounder, chief financial officer, and chief business officer is Art Howe, who also cofounded Verve Mobile, the phone-ad company. Howe also won a Pulitzer Prize in 1986 as an Inquirer reporter for his work on the IRS, and was president of Village Voice Media.
by Joseph N. DiStefano
Posted: September 10, 2019 – 7:00 AM
Joseph N. DiStefano | @PhillyJoeD | JoeD@inquirer.com