Cancer-fighting Ottawa startup Turnstone Biologics signs licensing agreement


An Ottawa biotech startup that is developing groundbreaking cancer-fighting viruses has inked a deal with a U.S. biopharmaceutical firm to market and sell its products.

Under the agreement announced this week, Illinois-based AbbVie will have the exclusive right to license up to three of Turnstone Biologics’ immunotherapy treatments for commercial purposes. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

As part of the new partnership, the Ottawa firm will develop up to three therapies based on a specially engineered cancer-fighting virus known as Maraba.

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“AbbVie’s global reach and deep experience in bringing to market medicines that deliver transformational improvements to patients will accelerate the development of Maraba-based therapies for solid tumours,” Turnstone Biologics CEO Sammy Farah said in a news release. “We are committed to delivering on the promise of our technology, and will rapidly advance the AbbVie-optioned therapies as well as our own pipeline of medicines.”

Founded by three Ontario cancer scientists, Turnstone is a leader in the emerging field of immunotherapy. Its research focuses a form of immunotherapy called oncolytic viruses – agents that infect human cancer cells, multiply and ultimately destroy tumours. The viruses are also used in a vaccine that can trigger the body’s immune system to identify and attack malignant tumours based on proteins called antigens found in the cancerous cells.

The firm turned heads almost a year ago when it landed a US$41-million Series-B funding round, the largest VC deal in the city since Shopify received $100 million in 2013. Turnstone now employs 25 people in Ottawa, Hamilton and New York and expects to double that number by the end of next year.

“Turnstone Biologics is the first company to clinically develop a combined oncolytic virus and cancer vaccine, and we are very impressed by their work to date,” AbbVie vice-president Tom Hudson said in a statement.

“The combination of our world-class expertise in oncology drug development partnered with Turnstone’s innovative therapeutic platform has the potential to generate first-in-class immunotherapies that can attack tumours directly and improve patients’ response to treatment.”

Turnstone co-founder Dr. John Bell of the Ottawa Hospital said the partnership with AbbVie will help the company accelerate its research efforts. Such partnerships are becoming a vital source of funding for biotech firms, which generally must put products through years of rigorous testing that can cost billions of dollars before treatments are approved for the public.

“Immunotherapy has the potential to cure even advanced cancers, but so far, it only works in a minority of people,” Dr. Bell said in a statement. “We believe that our unique approach has the potential to significantly expand the number of people that can benefit from immunotherapy.”

Founded by Dr. Bell, Dr. David Stojdl of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario and Dr. Brian Lichty of McMaster University, the firm is now testing its treatments in clinical trials at several hospitals across Canada. Last month, website named Turnstone one of the world’s top 15 biotech startups.

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