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UPenn Scientist Forges Research Pact with Morphotek as Unrelated Startup Takes Shape

A University of Pennsylvania Medical School cancer researcher has struck a new scientific collaboration with a local biotechnology firm just as the unrelated startup company he founded is getting its legs under it.
The researcher, Wafik El-Deiry, will collaborate with scientists from Exton, Pa.-based Morphotek to develop therapeutic antibody candidates targeting an antigen associated with hypoxic regions in tumors, under a sponsored research agreement announced by the company last week.
In addition, Oncoceutics, a company founded by El-Deiry in 2004 to commercialize cancer therapeutics targeting the p53 pathway, has identified a CEO and CFO after a long hiatus, and is in the process of obtaining a license to relevant intellectual property from UPenn, El-Deiry told BTW this week.
El-Deiry stressed that the two ventures are completely unrelated, though they do share a personal connection: Nicholas Nicolaides, with whom El-Deiry has been acquainted for nearly 20 years, is president and CEO of Morphotek, and is also a member of Oncoceutics’ scientific advisory board.
According to El-Deiry, who is a professor of medicine, genetics, and pharmacology at UPenn Medical, his research pact with Morphotek was catalyzed in part through his relationship with Nicolaides, which led to El-Deiry’s 2003 appointment as a member of Morphotek’s scientific advisory board.
Under the sponsored research pact, the financial terms of which have not been disclosed, Morphotek will supply El-Deiry’s lab with proprietary monoclonal antibodies the company is developing for therapeutic purposes to see whether they can be used to target an antigen produced by hypoxic regions in tumors.
Such hypoxic regions are commonly found in tumors as they rapidly outgrow their blood supply, which results in regions where oxygen concentrations are significantly lower than in healthy tissues.
These regions can lead to increased resistance of tumors to radiation and chemotherapies, and studies have shown that hypoxia is associated with a more malignant phenotype and poor survival in patients suffering from solid tumors. To survive under hypoxic conditions, tumor cells produce hypoxia-induced factors at levels that are not typically found in normal tissues.
El-Deiry said such hypoxia-induced factors may be a more significant target for mAb therapeutics in more rapidly growing angiogenic tumors, “but we won’t know until we’ve done experiments to see the extent to which they are effective.”

“With the new management team, [Oncoceutics] is looking very promising.”

The partnership is El-Deiry’s first formal research pact with Morphotek, a subsidiary of drug maker Eisai, although El-Deiry said the company was an industry partner in a National Cancer Institute-funded translational research and optical imaging consortium started at UPenn in 2003 and headed by El-Deiry. Funding for that initiative ended earlier this year.
In a statement, Nicolaides said that the collaboration “builds upon our existing relationships with leading researchers at [UPenn] for possible advancement of therapeutic monoclonal antibody candidates into clinical trials,” and that El-Deiry and his team “bring significant expertise to our program in the area of tumor hypoxia.”
While El-Deiry commences his R&D partnership with Morphotek, his 2004 startup Oncoceutics may be just finding the toehold it needs to commercialize other research El-Deiry has been working on.
Specifically, Oncoceutics is attempting to commercialize cancer therapeutics that target the p53 pathway. Central to this effort is a drug-discovery platform that combines a set of high-throughput biochemical and functional screening assays and molecular imaging technologies.
The platform relies on a bioluminescence-based cellular screening technique developed by El-Deiry that can identify small molecules that modulate p53 transcriptional activity or p53-related proteins in cancer cells, and have exhibited anti-cancer activity in human colon cancer xenografts.
El-Deiry and colleagues had been primarily working within the constraints of UPenn’s drug-discovery labs to achieve the proof of concept necessary to get the company on its feet. In 2006, El-Deiry told BTW sister publication Cell-Based Assay News that Oncoceutics had been put on temporary hiatus due to an inability to attract venture funding (see BTW, 7/14/06).
This week, El-Deiry told BTW that Oncoceutics was again ready to move forward, having hired a CEO and CFO. El-Deiry is primarily serving as an academic advisor to the company, but he said that “with the new management team, [Oncoceutics] is looking very promising.”
It is unclear whether the company has received an outside investment; El-Deiry said that Oncoceutics may provide further details on its maturation in early 2009. However, the new CEO, Wolfgang Oster, is a member of the investment team at FiveLakes Venture Partners, a Munich-based VC that invests primarily in young life science businesses in the fields of pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, medical devices, and diagnostics.
Oster was unable to be reached for comment prior to the publication of this article.
As far as intellectual property goes, El-Deiry said that Oncoceutics is currently negotiating a licensing agreement with UPenn for the inventions that would serve as the basis for the company’s drug-discovery platform. According to Oncoceutics’ website, it is working with the law firm of Morgan Lewis and Bockius to negotiate these agreements.
Regarding his collaboration with Morphotek, El-Deiry said it is too early to tell what type of IP might result.

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