Using viruses to treat cancer is an old idea; however, in recent decades, technologies have been developed to investigate and modify these ’cancer-killing’, or ‘oncolytic’ viruses.
Twenty years ago, Guy Ungerechts started working on viral vectors for his Ph.D. thesis at the University Hospital Tübingen. Guy was amazed by the safety and properties of the viruses he was investigating, and so he decided to intensify his studies. He spent several years abroad doing research in the USA and Canada, which gave him the opportunity to connect with pioneers in the field of cancer virotherapy.
The beginning of CanVirex
In 2017, Guy Ungerechts and Werner Tschollar, an expert in the pharmaceutical, biotech, and financing industries, founded CanVirex as a spin-off company from the Heidelberg University Hospital. The company’s name CanVirex stands for ‘fighting cancer with viruses.’ Their mission was to create an infrastructure that allows clinical translation of potential candidates derived from Guy’s research on oncolytic viruses.
CanVirex also stands for ‘fighting infectious diseases with viruses’. Given the incredible potential of viruses to protect against infectious diseases by way of vaccination against e.g., measles, rotavirus, or yellow fever, CanVirex has expanded its platform technology to propose a vaccine candidate for protection against COVID-19. For the development of the COVID-19 vaccine, CanVirex is collaborating with the German Center for Infection Research (DZIF).
Introducing Prof. Dr. Dr. Guy Ungerechts
Currently, Guy is head of the Virotherapy research group at the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) and is Deputy Director of the Medical Oncology Department at the University Hospital and National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT), Heidelberg. He also coordinates the German Virotherapy Consortium.
Guy believes in the immense potential of immunotherapeutics and especially in the combination of virotherapy with immunotherapy. To understand more his point of view and vision, we sat down with the scientific founder of CanVirex and asked him a couple of questions…
You are a clinical oncologist. When and why did you decide to also become a scientist?
Actually, I started my career as a scientist in molecular biology being especially interested in viruses as gene delivery platforms. I was also very keen on exploring mechanisms of action in the field of cancer research. However, at a certain point I felt like being more directly involved in science that has translational potential and so I went to medical school.
What motivated you to start working on measles viruses for cancer immunotherapy?
Early after finishing Medical School I was offered a postdoc fellowship position at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, USA. At the same time the Department of Molecular Medicine launched the first clinical trial with oncolytic measles virus – and I was hooked. I started my own pre-clinical virotherapy projects in Roberto Cattaneo´s lab and was eventually allowed to take a couple of them back to Germany to keep working on them.
Is it safe to treat cancer patients with oncolytic measles viruses?
Yes. Our oncolytic virus platform is based on the common measles virus vaccine backbone which has been used for decades now with an excellent safety profile. Recent clinical studies with measles virus-based therapeutics have demonstrated safety, even when administered intravenously in high doses to cancer patients.
The measles viruses you have developed for use in cancer therapy are now being used to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. How is that possible?
Our viruses can be modified to encode more or less any desired protein to modulate the immune system in a beneficial way. By insertion of coronavirus-specific antigens, we can use the measles vaccine to vaccinate for protection against COVID-19.
What is your vision for the company?
In the future we keep working on the therapeutic platform to offer novel treatment options for patients that currently would remain in a hopeless situation.
In the future, CanVirex envisions establishing a platform based on our virus technology. The platform technology is highly flexible and allows treatment or prevention of various diseases. But the company’s focus will remain on offering better treatment solutions for cancer patients that are safe, effective, and provide an improved Quality-of-Life under treatment.