More than £20m has been pumped into Virttu Biologics – which was spun out in 2000 as Crusade Laboratories – by Cancer Research UK’s technology arm, the university and Dayspring Ventures, a Jersey-based firm that invests on behalf of two “ultra high net worth” families.
Chairman Patrick Dixon – a cancer doctor and biotech industry veteran – revealed that the company is now in advanced talks with pharmaceutical firms in order to develop its technology.
Virttu has modified the herpes virus so that it attacks cancer cells but leaves healthy cells alone. In its simplest form, herpes causes cold sores but can also trigger encephalitis, a potentially fatal swelling of the brain tissue.
Dixon, who joined the company last year, said: “Scientists in Glasgow have been quietly working away on this technology for the past decade, making sure it’s safe to use in human beings.”
He explained that, in the past, the virus had been tested on cancer patients who had already undergone chemotherapy or other treatments.
In December, the company made a breakthrough by realising that its virus does not interfere with chemotherapy but in fact enhances such treatments, meaning that it could in theory be used alongside existing therapies.
Such a move will make it easier for the firm to recruit patients for clinical trials – a major stumbling block in the past – and will mean that it can collaborate with other researchers.
Scientists have also found that they can use the virus to deliver other medicines to cancer cells, again increasing the options for partnerships.
Dixon said: “I don’t expect that doctors would use the virus on its own but would pair it up with other therapies.”
Virttu’s virus – called “Seprehvir” – attacks cancer cells without any toxic effects, Dixon said, leaving patients with only flu-like symptoms for 24 hours.
Patients are currently being recruited for phase-one clinical trials for the virus at the Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati, in the United States, and at Weston Park Hospital, in Sheffield. In the past, the virus has also been used in trials to treat patients with brain cancer.
Dixon said: “We’ve reached an inflection point with the company. We now need to step up a big gear and have a 24-month plan to do that.
“We want to start a liver cancer study at Hammersmith in London and an ovarian cancer study in Glasgow.”
Steven Powell – another industry veteran, who Dixon said has been involved in seven mergers and acquisitions and had raised $120m (£78m) for biotech outfits – was appointed last year as Virttu’s chief executive.
Dixon has held talks with pharmaceutical companies in Asia which are interested in testing the virus as a treatment for liver cancer.
He said “oncolytic viruses” had aroused interest among investors and pharmaceutical companies since Amgen’s $1 billion takeover in January 2011 of BioVex, a venture capital-owned cancer vaccine developer that had been spun out from University College London a decade earlier.