Using existing lab infrastructure and expertise, the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research launches cancer therapeutic firms that attract additional investment.

Using existing lab infrastructure and expertise, the research institute launches firms that attract additional investment.

The Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research has launched its ninth biotechnology company in 7 years, iTeos Therapeutics SA, of Gosselies, Belgium. Forming new spin-off companies is a key part of the nonprofit's strategy as it tries to bridge the gap between its own bench research and patient needs.

Ludwig, an international institute with administrative offices in New York City and an operating budget of $110 million in 2012, realizes that it needs to move beyond relying on pharmaceutical companies to take its scientists’ research insights and turn them into new therapies. But as the business model for these companies has changed, so has Ludwig's.

“More and more research organizations such as the Ludwig Institute are focused on generating some sort of patient benefit,” says Jonathan Skipper, PhD, Ludwig's executive director of technology development. “Recently, we've focused on opportunities from our research efforts that can form part of a new spinoff.”

Pharmaceutical firms are increasingly risk-averse, often waiting longer to acquire drug discovery programs until they are confident a candidate drug will be a success.

“There's a need for more and different kinds of structures to fund the transition from early discovery to drug discovery and drug development, and we're clearly responding to that,” Skipper comments. “We pursue traditional outlicensing agreements as well when the opportunities arise.”

Ludwig can start a technology development project cost-effectively with its existing lab infrastructure and clinical expertise. These projects transition into spinoff companies with just one or two employees. The spinoffs can then attract additional investment from governments, foundations, and venture capitalists around the world to fund critical experiments and trials that would not be appropriate in a research setting, Skipper says.

The institute's first company, PIramed Ltd., founded in 2005 in Britain, developed phosphoinositide 3-kinase inhibitors in collaboration with Genentech. PIramed was sold to Roche in 2008.

Ludwig is now pursuing a number of opportunities in cancer vaccines and related immunotherapies. iTeos, for instance, which was co-founded with the de Duve Institute at the Université catholique de Louvain, will combine existing vaccines with new immunomodulatory compounds developed in the lab of Ludwig Brussels Branch Director Benoît Van den Eynde, MD, PhD.

Van den Eynde's preclinical research suggests that the enzyme tryptophan 2,3-dioxygenase (TDO) appears to play a significant role in tumor growth, and that inhibiting or suppressing TDO might help against a wide range of cancers, including ovarian, prostate, pancreatic, colorectal, bladder, and liver cancers, as well as melanoma.

iTeos has raised $9 million from Ludwig, Life Sciences Research Partners, VIVES Louvain Technology Fund, Hunza Ventures SCA, several angel investors, and the government of the Walloon Region of Belgium. Within 4 years, the company aims to complete a phase I/IIa study for the first compound program and to submit an Investigational New Drug application for a second compound.

Eventually, Skipper says, income generated from startups such as iTeos will help to fund more Ludwig research.