Hoping to cure cancer with a single shot.
It’s 4 p.m. on Valentine’s Day, and Dr. Kah-Whye Peng (wearing a red shirt—she says she planned ahead) and Dr. Stephen Russell (he says he didn’t) have peeled off from their day jobs to meet us in the new offices of Vyriad, the clinical stage, cancer-fighting biopharmaceutical company they co-founded in 2014.
Those day jobs (she’s a professor of oncology in Mayo’s Department of Molecular Medicine; he’s a professor of molecular medicine at Mayo Clinic) helped them kickstart Vyriad, after Mayo loosened the rules for these kinds of companies with its groundbreaking Employee Entrepreneurship Program.
In 2013, Mayo Clinic, in its own words, “rewrote a longstanding policy to give researchers and physicians more freedom to start new businesses.”
Soon after, 20-year coworkers Peng and Russell rented a space—well, more of a chair, really—in the Mayo Clinic Business Accelerator. That chair—which cost $100 a month—gave them the opportunity to use a conference room.
Here was their goal: Create a single shot to cure cancer.
Their approach? They wanted to engineer viruses—like measles and the VSV virus (which affects cattle in Central America)—to destroy cancer cells while kick-starting and assisting our body’s natural tumor-killing immune response.
They put their own money into the business. Eventually rented space in downtown’s Bio Business Center with their sister company, Immanis. Built a small lab. Peng furnished the space with chairs and desks bought from the Salvation Army. Cherry-picked lab equipment Mayo was getting rid of.
“If Mayo was dismantling a lab, Kah-Whye would go in and say, ‘Hey, can we have this, this, this, and this?’ and she’d get it all in the back of a lorry,” says Russell, who was born in England and got his MD from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. And occasionally says things like “lorry.”
“I was just saving them a trip to the dumpster,” says Peng, who grew up in Singapore.
Today, Peng is Vyriad’s Chief Technical Officer. Russell is the Director, CEO, and President. And right now—just four years after they first rented that chair—they’re sitting in the boardroom of their new (the ribbon-cutting was Jan. 30), 25,000-square-foot, $9 million facility in what used to be the computer chip manufacturing building in the southwest corner of the IBM campus.
Today, they have garnered financial backing from organizations ranging from Mayo Clinic to RAEDI to the Southeast Minnesota Capital Fund.
Vyriad’s 12 employees (20 with Immanis)—and they’re hoping to double that in the next year—are scattered through the building’s various labs, developing and testing strains of vaccines that have been called “the cutting-edge of the cancer fight.”
Between Mayo Clinic and Vyriad, 200 or so patients with various cancers have been treated with strains of viruses in numerous clinical trials, including three trials taking place in six centers across the country.
They’re injecting the measles virus into the bladders of people with bladder cancer and into the spinal canals of kids with medulloblastoma, a rare cancer of the spine. They are—especially considering the recent results—focusing on VSV to target colorectal cancer, T-cell lymphoma, endometriosis, and multiple myeloma.
They’re looking for the next Stacy Erholtz.
In 2004, the 40-year-old Erholtz, a mom of three, was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer. By 2014, after seeking every treatment available, she had given up hope. She was told she didn’t have long to live. Her blood cancer was incurable.
Then she met Russell, who oversaw an experimental treatment at Mayo Clinic. In one 24-hour period, Russell and his team injected Erholtz with the measles vaccine. Enough engineered measles virus, in fact, to inoculate 10 million people.
Nearly six years later, at age 54, Erholtz is cancer free.
While they have yet to replicate another clear-cut cancer cure like Erholtz’s, her story—and their work with new VSV treatments—looks “very promising,” says Peng. “We recently presented at the American Society of Hematology maintaining that we had partial response in one of our patients with a new virus that we’re developing, Voyager-V1. We’re getting closer and closer.”
“We know this treatment can work,” says Russell. “We’ve seen and continue to see some very, very encouraging cancer responses. I think we’re poised now, in this new facility, to bring in the dollars that we need in order to grow. The dollars that we need to find that single shot that could cure cancer.”
Vyriad’s mission? A single shot to cure cancer. Vyriad’s novel approach relies on viruses (developed in labs in the Mayo Clinic and Miami) that are engineered to destroy cancer cells directly while kick-starting and assisting our body’s natural tumor-killing immune response. Their research with the measles virus and especailly the VSV virus (which affects cattle in Central America) has led to numerous clinical trials (including at Mayo Clinic).
How do patients get in the trials? To see Vyriad’s current clinical trials, and patient recruitment status, check out vyriad.com/pipeline.
What’s in a name? In the case of Vyriad, it’s “myriad” and “viruses.” “My wife came up with that,” says Dr. Russell.
Who’s on the management team? Stephen J. Russell MD PhD (Founder, Director, CEO, and President); Glen Barber PhD (Founder and Director); Jim Hannon (Chief Financial Officer); Alice S. Bexon, MD (Chief Medical Officer); Kah-Whye Peng PhD (Founder and Chief Technical Officer).
Does being vaccinated for measles negatively affect Vyriad’s drugs? “There are measles epidemics occurring in European and U.S. cities because people are not vaccinating their children,” says Russell. “And what I am horrified to discover in that some of those people are using the argument against vaccination that measles can be good for their cancer. It’s not a good argument at all. In fact, the viruses that we’re now developing are designed to be more effective in people who have been vaccinated.”