BioWorld International Correspondent

MUNICH, Germany - An Austrian firm has found that its antibody against targets for epithelial cancers is more effective than originally believed.

Presenting results at the 94th annual meeting of the American Association of Cancer Research in Washington, Igeneon AG, of Vienna, had in vitro data showing that its antibody, IGN311, has a broader mechanism of action than the company originally believed. It also includes features similar to antibodies already on the market that are specific to growth factor receptors.

Furthermore, Igeneon presented data demonstrating that co-expression of IGN311's target antigens, Lewis Y and EpCAM, in breast cancer correlates with poor prognosis for the patients, supporting the company's choice of the targets. The company's founder and CEO, Hans Loibner, is optimistic enough about the prospects of IGN311 and its other products that he raised the possibility of going public.

"We knew that the antibody had a particular mode of action," Loibner told BioWorld International. "Then we thought that there might be another mechanism, which modulates a functional effect of the antibody."

Binding to the receptors that the company is examining meant that the antibody "could inhibit the signal cascade that would normally lead to proliferation of the tumor cell," Loibner said. It would thus halt the tumor's spread.

IGN311 is a humanized monoclonal antibody directed against epithelial cancers, which make up 70 percent of all cancer cases. It binds to the carbohydrate antigen Lewis Y and directly destroys tumor cells by complement activation and by the activation of cytotoxic effector cells, the company said. Igeneon's study, conducted in cooperation with Michael Freissmuth at the Institute of Pharmacology in Vienna, showed IGN311 has an additional mechanism of action similar to growth factor receptor-specific antibodies. In addition to directly destroying tumor cells, it inhibits signal transduction and tumor cell growth. The company believes the antibody may be even more specific, as it recognizes only growth factor receptors on tumor cells, potentially minimizing side effects.

That specificity could be a significant advantage. "Normal antibodies have side effects because they are working on normal cells," Loibner said. "Our antibody's added specificity will likely mean lower toxicity. All of that must, of course, be shown in clinical trials."

The company is planning a Phase Ib/II trial of the antibody.

Igeneon is a biopharmaceutical company that focuses on active and passive cancer immunotherapies designed to prevent or delay the development of metastases in cancers of epithelial origin.

IGN311 is the third cancer therapeutic that Igeneon has in clinical trials. Its most advanced product, IGN101, is an anti-EpCAM cancer vaccine, which is being tested in two Phase II trials and a Phase II/III trial. Another vaccine, targeted against Lewis Y, entered a Phase Ib trial in December.

Loiter said he was optimistic about both the company and the biotech sector as whole. "Of course, there is nobody who is not affected by the state of the market, but we are in a very good position," he added. "For a company that is just now four years old, it is remarkable that we already have three immunotherapy projects in clinical development."

The company's €30 million round of financing in 2001 was one of Europe's largest at the time. "Although it is always important to work for additional capital, we are in a good financial position at the moment," Loibner said. Total funding to date amounts to approximately €45 million in venture capital, government grants and subsidized loans.

"We also have everything in place to go for an IPO if the opportunity should arise," he said. For example, the company adheres to the Austrian Corporate Governance Code, which is not mandatory for privately held companies, but makes its reporting similar to that of publicly traded firms.

Loibner said that Igeneon had been scrutinizing the IPO window and looking for an advantageous opportunity. "We are one of the companies that, in principle, would be able to [prepare for a public offering] in a short period of time," he said. While Loibner thinks that the sector as a whole is recovering, he did not say when he thought the IPO window might open again.