NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – With a series of recent collaborations, German biomarker firm Protagen is shifting its focus to cancer immunotherapy.
Over the last year the company has signed agreements with the German National Center for Tumor Diseases, the National Cancer Institute, and the Gustave Roussy Institute of Oncology for biomarker work in immunoncology, with a specific focus on identifying patients at risk of immune-related adverse events (irAEs).
"This is the major focus of the company and has been for the last 16 months," said Georg Lautscham, Protagen's CBO.
Founded in 1997 as a protein analysis firm, Protagen has moved over the last decade to focus on autoimmune disease using its SeroTag biomarker discovery platform to identify autoantibody markers for a variety of autoimmune conditions. The SeroTag platform measures levels of autoantibodies to around 8,000 human proteins, allowing researchers to identify proteins involved in conditions of interest.
With the recent rise of cancer immunotherapy, the company saw an opportunity to apply its autoimmune work to a new space, Lautscham said.
"What these new therapies do is try to reactivate the patient's immune system in order to fight the cancer," he said. "And, at least for a certain subset of patients, they do this extremely successfully."
"But what they're not so good at is fine-tuning the immune system so that it only attacks the cancer," he added. "Once you manage to stimulate the immune system, in a considerable number of cases you stimulate it enough that you see side effects."
These side effects often "look like autoimmune diseases," Lautscham said. "And that is sort of the relationship to our previous work. The question is, these side effects that you see, can we predict them?"
Protagen announced its first immunotherapy project last year, a collaboration with the German National Center for Tumor Diseases Heidelberg to look at biomarkers for predicting side effects in melanoma patients treatment with checkpoint inhibitors.
Shortly thereafter, the company announced a collaboration with NCI to identify biomarkers that predict immunotherapy responsiveness, monitor patients receiving treatment, and for the early detection of immune-related adverse events.
This week it announced its collaboration with Gustave Roussy to look for biomarkers to identify patients at risk of irAEs.
Lautscham said that Protagen has studied immunotherapy-related side effects in around 15 different cancers thus far, with melanoma and prostate cancer being the main areas of focus. In those two cancers, the company and its collaborators have completed the discovery stage of their work and are now moving on to validate the markers they've identified.
"In the other tumor indications, we are still in the discovery stage for most of them," he said.
While the SeroTag platform can screen up to 8,000 protein antigens, Lautscham said Protagen and its collaborators have narrowed the panel they are using down to around 850 proteins. They plan to pare it down further to sets of around 60 to 90 proteins that they will use to look at specific tumor types or treatments, he said.
He added that while the initial focus of the company's immunotherapy work is around identifying markers for the risk of side effects, it plans to move into other areas including identifying likely responders to immunotherapies. This has been a major area of interest in immunotherapy biomarker research as existing markers, primarily tumor PD-L1 levels, are not as effective as hoped at identifying good responders to these drugs.
"The initial step into this field came from the relationship of [immunotherapy] side effects to our home turf — the autoimmune diseases," Lautscham said. "But what we see is that some of our biomarkers can also support prediction of overall survival."
Protagen is not currently working with any pharma companies on immunotherapy markers, but Lautscham said the company plans in the future to leverage its existing relationships with drug makers to move into this area.
"In the autoimmune space we have worked with or are currently working with seven of the top 10 pharma companies," he said. "At the moment we're trying to establish a sound IP position in this space and then [begin] to offer these markers to pharma companies."