Professors Johanna Olweus and Karl-Johan Malmberg are both Directors of the new Centre of Excellence called Precision Immunotherapy Alliance (PRIMA).

New centre for precision immunotherapy

Immunotherapy has the potential to cure advanced cancer – now a new Centre of Excellence will look at how to tailor precise and effective treatments for patients.

Nine new Centers of Excellence have been awarded NOK 1,4 billion by the Norwegian Research Council. One of the centers will focus on precision immunotherapy and has received NOK 155 million.

Develop effective treatments

The centre is called Precision Immunotherapy Alliance (PRIMA) and is led by Johanna Olweus, M.D., Ph.D. Professor and Head of Department of Cancer Immunology, Oslo University Hospital and Karl-Johan Malmberg, M.D., Ph.D. Professor, University of Oslo. The alliance consists of in total seven research group leaders from Oslo University Hospital and the University of Oslo.

“Our center aims to identify targets and immune receptors that enable precise and effective treatment of cancer with manageable side effects, but the goal is that the therapies that will be developed can be used for many patients. The tools and technologies that we will develop based on our in-house concepts provide unique opportunities for this, in particular because of the complementary expertise of the various center partners,” commented Olweus.

A great acknowledgment

Malmberg and Olweus said the designation of the Centre of Excellence represents a great acknowledgement of the cancer research milieu in Oslo, and that it puts them in the position to make an even greater impact internationally.

“The timing to form a Centre of Excellence in precision immunotherapy is perfect. The possibilities to make breakthroughs in cancer immunotherapy research have never been bigger. The research group leaders that have joined forces in Precision Immunotherapy Alliance possess complementary expertise needed to address outstanding challenges in the field,” commented Malmberg.

Access to new therapies

Malmberg and Olweus stressed that the success of the centre relies upon collaboration with different institutions. They hope Oslo University Hospital and the University of Oslo will support them and that they can have a good dialogue with medical authorities, such as the Norwegian Medicines Agency.

“The aim is that Norwegian patients will get access to new therapies in clinical trials very early, rather than having to wait for new therapies to come from abroad. Innovation can also spur a generation of new start-ups and collaboration with existing industry, resulting in more clinical trials being attracted to Norway. We also believe that this will allow for us to attract talented researchers and clinicians who want to work with cancer immunotherapy, from Norway and abroad,” said Olweus.

Åslaug Helland, Project Leader of IMPRESS-Norway and Lars-Petter Strand, Medical Director Oncology in Eli Lilly Norway, are happy about Eli Lilly & Company joining the IMPRESS study.

Eli Lilly & Company in the IMPRESS study

Content looking woman to the left and man to the right, head shots put together

Eli Lilly & Company is now part of the national Norwegian IMPRESS study.

Eli Lilly & Company is already part of CONNECT, the national collaboration on implementing precision medicine in Norway. Now, the international pharmaceutical company is offering participants of the IMPRESS study a new and promising medicine. This is good news for cancer patients in Norway.

Read more about CONNECT on their website.

The IMPRESS study is a national clinical study looking into the effect of cancer precision medicine. Patients with advanced, incurable cancer will – through the study – get the opportunity to test new treatments for their type of cancer.

Finding new and effective forms of treatment

The goal of the IMPRESS study is to test whether so-called off-label medications can be effective on new patient groups, based on their type of cancer and genetic mutations (molecular profile). This means that the participants of the study are testing out medications approved for the treatment of other diseases to fight their specific cancer disease. In other words, it’s not the type of cancer, but the genes that determine which medicine the patient receives.

“Impress is an important study for Norwegian researchers, not to mention for Norwegian cancer patients,” said Lars-Petter Strand, Medical Director Oncology in Eli Lilly Norway, in a press release from the company.

The intention is to find effective forms of treatment adapted to each individual’s cancer – a form of precision medicine. CONNECTs partner, Eli Lilly & Company, is now offering the participants of the study a new medication. This is great news for all the participants.

Up to 24 patients

Eli Lilly & Company is giving up to 24 participants the opportunity to try out the lung cancer medication Selpercatinib, sold under the product name Retsevmo. In previous studies, this medication has shown very good effects.

In order to treat as many patients as possible, access to medication is crucial. A wider range of medications to test contributes to more patients being able to receive treatment. Eli Lilly & Company’s support for IMPRESS is therefore of great importance.

“We are thrilled that Lilly supports IMPRESS Norway! We are seeing very good effects from the use of Selperkatinib through the completed studies, and we are pleased to be able to offer this medication to the patients participating in the IMPRESS study,” said Åslaug Helland Nasjonal, Project Leader for IMPRESS-Norway, in the press release.

In the same press release, Lars-Petter Strand emphasizes the importance of the IMPRESS study.

“Impress is an important study for Norwegian researchers, not to mention for Norwegian cancer patients, where the benefit and risk of tumor agnostic-targeted treatment will be investigated,” Strand said, and added:

“IMPRESS also emphasizes the importance of the hospitals and the pharmaceutical industry having an open dialogue about data and research, in order to contribute to the best possible treatment for Norwegian cancer patients.”

The laboratory where Bergenbio develops new treatments. Photographer: Nils Olav Mevatne

Cancer treatment helped corona patients

Picture of work in the lab

Ventilator-free survival is improved for more than 50% of corona patients, by a Norwegian cancer medicine from our member Bergenbio.

A drug produced by the Norwegian biotech company Bergenbio can be effective against serious corona disease. The drug was originally developed to treat cancer and has been in clinical testing since the beginning of the pandemic.

A recent clinical trial showed that fewer hospitalised corona patients needed to go on a ventilator after receiving the medicine. The results were presented in a press release from Bergenbio last week.

During the clinical trial, 58 hospitalised covid-19 patients in India and South Africa received the drug. The patients had a less complicated hospital stay and less need for ventilator treatment.

Ventilator-free survival was increased for more than half of the patients. Ventilator-free survival means surviving to day 29 without admission to intensive care unit and need for ventilator-assisted breathing.

“The potential of bemcentinib to increase the rate of ventilator-free survival in more than 50% of hospitalised COVID-19 patients is very encouraging,” Richard Godfrey, Chief Executive Officer of BerGenBio, commented.

The trial also showed the drug has the same effect on mutations of the coronavirus.

Need for covid-19 treatments

There is still a large unmet need for effective treatments of covid-19. Seriously ill covid-19 patients end up hospitalised in intensive care units (ICU) and may need to be put on ventilators.

“The greatest challenge faced by hospitals worldwide is an unmanageable demand for ICU capacity and ventilator support for COVID-19 patients,” Professor emeritus Stener Kvinnsland MD PhD, Director of BerGenBio and former Chair of Norwegian Korona Commission, commented.

“For the foreseeable future, in spite of recent progress with vaccinations, there remains a substantial global need for effective treatments for COVID-19 patients that offers survival benefit and relief for intensive care demand on hospitals,” Kvinnsland continued.

A Norwegian invention

Bergenbio is a Norwegian biotech company with a research team based in Bergen and a clinical development team based in Oxford.

The company has identified a protein called AXL that exists on the surface of cells. The AXL protein plays an important role when the immune system fails. It keeps cells resistant to treatment and can conceal cells from the body’s immune system.

Bergenbio has developed a drug that turns off the AXL signals, which makes treatment more effective as the immune system can be activated.

The drug was developed as a cancer treatment and was in phase 2 of clinical testing when it was selected for the ACCORD programme, a large clinical study against covid-19.

Carlos de Sousa, CEO of Ultimovacs. Photo: Ultimovacs

Cancer vaccine effective for 60% of patients

Picture of Carlos de Sause, CEO of ultimovacs

60% of melanoma patients responded to universal cancer vaccine, according to new data from our member Ultimovacs.

A clinical trial against advanced melanoma (a serious form of skin cancer) has shown positive effects in 60% of all patients. The Phase I clinical trial is led by our member Ultimovacs, a Norwegian company that develops vaccines against cancer.

“These very strong and exciting data further strengthen the foundation for our broad Phase II clinical program for UV1,” said Jens Bjørheim, Chief Medical Officer at Ultimovacs.

The cancer treatment is a universal cancer vaccine called UV1 in combination with an immunotherapy drug called pembrolizumab. The results of the treatment show a 60% objective response rate in patients with advanced melanoma. This includes 30% complete responses and 30% partial responses.

The potential of immunotherapy

The reason for choosing this treatment is that immunotherapy has good effect on melanoma patients and many new combinations of immunotherapy show great potential.

Immunotherapy mobilises the cancer patient’s own immune system to identify and kill the cancer cells.

The melanoma patients often don’t have the right T cells present in their bodies to experience the full effect of the immunotherapy pembrolizumab.

T cells are part of the immune system, help to protect the body from infection and may help to fight cancer.

The cancer vaccine UV1 increases the number of the right T cells so a stronger and broader immune response can be achieved, in combination with pembrolizumab.

Accepted to ASCO

The data will be presented at a poster session at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) 2021 Annual Meeting – the world’s largest cancer conference – on 4-8 June. The poster presentation will also be published on Ultimovacs website.

“These data reinforce our conviction that UV1 can play a transformative role in the treatment of conditions such as malignant melanoma,” said Carlos de Sousa, CEO of Ultimovacs.

“It suggests that UV1 in combination with checkpoint inhibitors like pembrolizumab can mobilize the immune system to fight cancer. This is very encouraging for melanoma patients and for those involved with the roll-out of Ultimovacs’ broader programs in solid cancers,” de Sousa continued.

Read more in the press release from Ultimovacs.