By Jim Shrine

Corixa Corp. is getting $12 million over three years from a not-for-profit group, in an investment that will reinvigorate the ex vivo adoptive immunotherapy program at Corixa.

Corixa and the Infectious Disease Research Institute (IDRI), both of Seattle, reached agreement to research and develop ex vivo therapies for various cancers. IDRI committed $12 million over three years to support Corixa¿s effort. Corixa retains all product rights, and would pay IDRI a percentage of proceeds.

Corixa had worked with CellPro Inc., of Bothell, Wash., for a little more than two years in the area of ex vivo cancer therapies, until their relationship ended early in 1998, because CellPro was short of cash. Corixa, which retained all rights from that collaboration, hasn¿t done that much in the area since then.

¿This will put a concerted effort [back into] this area,¿ said Michelle Burris, chief financial officer at Corixa. ¿We have done some additional work in the area, but very lightly. But our work in the area of antigen discovery, primarily for development of therapeutic vaccines, has other applications, such as patient-specific ex vivo therapy.

¿We already have a number of antigens we believe are promising for ex vivo therapy,¿ she said. ¿We¿ll do different assays, testing to see if the antigens we¿ve already discovered can get utilized. That¿s primarily what we¿re focusing on. To the extent we discover novel antigens as they relate to our ongoing business, we can look at those in this setting as well.¿

Funding Committed, Rights Retained

Adoptive immunotherapy entails the activation of immune cells outside the body, followed by re-infusion into the patient. One method involves activation and expansion of T cells in vitro that have the ability to recognize and kill tumor cells. Another approach involves use of dendritic cells, which can initiate antigen-specific T-cell responses.

The initial focus will be in breast cancer, Burris said. The IDRI funding is expected to cover all of Corixa¿s work, she said.

¿This is a very unique transaction in that there is committed funding but we retain all the rights,¿ she said. ¿Obviously, we¿re intrigued.¿

Burris said someone donated the money to IDRI anonymously to be used to promote research in ex vivo cancer therapy. With few companies working in the area, IDRI came to Corixa. It may be the first relationship in which IDRI is directly funding outside research, she said.

IDRI and Corixa have done some work together in the past, and IDRI even sublet space at Corixa, though the companies have no formal ties. Steve Reed, chief scientific officer at Corixa, previously had founded IDRI.

Company Has 20 Partnered Programs

In three years, ¿we hope to be treating patients, either in a clinical setting or with an approved product,¿ Burris said. ¿Our desire would be to have a product that could be used directly in patient-specific therapy. We are not intending to build equipment,¿ but the biological kits or material needed to stimulate the cytotoxic T cells.

Corixa might be expected to partner the technology sometime down the line, since its strategy now does not include direct product marketing, Burris said.

Corixa s focus is on developing a new class of disease-specific T cell vaccines and therapeutics, based on a technology platform in antigen discovery, antigen delivery and adjuvant technology. The company has more than a dozen ongoing antigen discovery programs under way, six vaccines in clinical-stage development and two additional vaccines in late preclinical development.

Corixa has about 20 partnered programs ¿ many in diagnostics ¿ one of which is a potential $200 million deal with London-based SmithKline Beecham plc. Together, the two companies are working on a tuberculosis vaccine, two chlamydia pathogens, and a number of antigens for breast, prostate, ovarian and colon cancers. (See BioWorld Today, Oct. 29, 1998, p. 1.)

¿Our strategy in antigen-discovery efforts can be applied in multiple areas,¿ Burris said. ¿It is logical for us to be involved in the ex vivo setting.¿