With a lead drug in late-stage clinical trials, CancerVax Corp. is seeking to build its oncology pipeline by in-licensing T-oligos technology.

The Carlsbad, Calif.-based company obtained an exclusive, worldwide sublicense of T-oligos - or telomere homologue oligonucleotides - technology from SemaCo Inc. in order to find treatments or preventions of cancer.

"It's a very exciting new potential technology," said David Hale, president and CEO of CancerVax. "It's a newly defined mechanism that may be applicable in a number of different types of cancer."

While detailed financial terms were not disclosed, SemaCo will receive an up-front license fee and patent cost reimbursement. It also will receive research support, payments for achieving regulatory and other milestones, and royalties if a product is commercialized.

In addition to oncology rights, CancerVax was granted a right of first refusal to use the T-oligo technology outside the field of cancer, or to license other technology developed by SemaCo and its founder, Barbara Gilchrest, a professor at Boston University School of Medicine. Gilchrest developed the technology and formed SemaCo, which then licensed it from the university.

"There's been a significant number of preclinical studies conducted by Barbara and her associates," Hale told BioWorld Today. "Our objective would be to move the technology forward to the clinic as quickly as possible."

In preclinical studies, T-oligo treatment has demonstrated inhibitory effects on several tumor types, including breast, ovarian, pancreatic and squamous-cell carcinomas and melanoma, fibrosarcoma, osteosarcoma, and lymphoma.

A recent article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences described preclinical studies in murine models of photocardinogenesis suggesting that T-oligos might activate defense mechanisms used by healthy cells to prevent malignant transformation. T-oligos also might cause apoptosis of cultured human melanoma and lymphoma cells.

T-oligos are short DNA fragments, two or more nucleotides in length, which appear to substitute for the normal DNA damage signal. The signal activates natural protective pathways that keep cells from becoming cancerous. Researchers believe that T-oligos mimic the effect of telomere disruption in normal cells, inhibiting or killing malignant cells.

"It appears that the T-oligos work to restore the natural pathways," Hale said, "thereby causing apoptosis by stopping their growth and by stopping their replication."

Aside from its agreement with SemaCo, CancerVax's lead product Canvaxin is the subject of two international Phase III trials to treat patients with advanced-stage melanoma. The product has received fast-track and orphan drug designation. As of the end of February, the two trials have enrolled 870 patients with Stage III melanoma, and 349 patients with Stage IV melanoma, at more than 80 sites around the world, Hale said. Enrollment of Stage III patients should be completed by the end of this year. Stage IV enrollment is expected a year later.

The company also is finalizing the design of a Phase II trial of Canvaxin in patients with Stage III colon cancer.

"We should begin those studies sometime in the first half of this year," Hale said.

Beyond that, the company plans to develop new candidates based on its active immunotherapy platform, its anti-angiogenesis technology, and its in-licensed human monoclonal antibodies.

CancerVax, which was founded in 2000, conducted its initial public offering in October, raising $72 million. Earlier in 2003, the company completed a $41 million Series C round. (See BioWorld Today, Aug. 15, 2003; Aug. 18, 2003; and Oct. 31, 2003.)