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Rochester biotech firm strikes 'significant' deal with drug maker

Dr. Kah-Whye Peng and Dr. Stephen Russell of Vyriad.

A rapidly growing Rochester biotech firm is rolling out a "transformative" deal with a giant drug company to ramp up the development of its cancer-fighting vaccines with an infusion of money and people.

Vyriad, founded in 2016 by Mayo Clinic researchers Dr. Kah-Whye Peng and Dr. Stephen Russell, announced "a strategic research collaboration" with Tarrytown, N.Y.-based Regeneron Pharmaceuticals this morning.

"It is transformative for the company," Russell said of the Regeneron deal. "It puts us on track to do everything we want to do for the next couple years ... It's really huge."

Vyriad recently moved from downtown Rochester into a $9 million, 25,000-square-foot lab on the Rochester Technology Campus, the former IBM campus, at 3605 U.S. Highway 52 North. Russell said that working with Regeneron means Vyriad will have to double its team of 20 employees to at least 40, possibly 45.

The Rochester firm uses viruses, such as measles and others, to attack cancer tumors. The two-stage process has the clinical-stage oncolytic virus damage the tumor and then "wake up" a patient’s immune system to finish destroying the cancer. Using viruses to treat cancer is an estimated $4 billion global market this year and it's expected to continue to grow as companies like Vyriad have products approved.


This new collaboration means the companies will pair up on a  Phase 2 clinical trial of how Vyriad's lead product, Voyager-V1, will work in conjunction with Regeneron's Libtayo, which is already approved to treat skin cancer. The trial is expected to take two to three years. It's considered "a basket test" to see how multiple cancers, including melanoma, lung, liver and endometrial cancers react to the combination of Voyager and Libtayo 

"Using both together is expected to be synergistic," said Russell. "I think it is quite reasonable that we will cure some people with the combination of two complimentary immunotherapies ... The goal is always to improve the quality of life for cancer patients."

Assuming "best case scenario" with everything going as planned, he estimated it could take five to six years before a Voyager could be approved for use.

In addition to propelling Vyriad's lead product forward, this new Regeneron agreement lays the groundwork for the firms to work together to develop next generation oncolytic virus drug candidates.

"The pipeline work is even more exciting ... What we're doing in research is trying to build something better," said Russell.

Under the agreement, Vyriad will receive an upfront payment of an undisclosed amount plus an equity investment from Regeneron.

"Vyriad's differentiated oncolytic virotherapy platform helps Regeneron continue to diversify our arsenal of immuno-oncology approaches, which include multiple combinations with our anti-PD-1 backbone, as well as novel delivery and re-targeting mechanisms," stated Regeneron Senior Vice President and Head of Clinical and Translational Sciences Dr. Israel Lowy.

Vyriad and its sister company, Imanis Life Sciences, have seen a lot of local support since they launched in Rochester in the Mayo Clinic Business Accelerator. The City of Rochester’s Economic Development Fund and the Southeast Minnesota Capital Fund, managed by Rochester Area Economic Development, Inc., provided $400,000 in financing to both combined.


Regeneron, which recently posted revenues of more than $2 billion for the third quarter, already has a link to Rochester with a recently announced agreement to sequence the genetic code of 100,000 Mayo Clinic patients.

"This is one of the most significant deals in past decade ... it's an overnight success that's been a decade in the making, said Director of Entrepreneurial Programming and EDF Fund Manager Xavier Frigola. "The part we're happy about and I think Rochester should be happy about is that Vyriad is staying here, and this will hopefully encourage more companies to come here."

Growing in Rochester and becoming a beacon to other similar companies here has been part of Russell's vision for Vyriad, since the beginning. When Vyriad needed financing for a facility, Russell was often turned down because he wouldn't move to somewhere like Boston or San Francisco.

Now the idea of Rochester as a biotechnology hub is starting to gain some traction with the new One Discovery Square complex filling up with companies linked with Mayo Clinic and Vyriad's creation of a state-of-art research/manufacturing facility on the Rochester Technology Campus.

"I am so delighted that we've been able to do that. The technology that this company has been built on came from Mayo Clinic and it should benefit Rochester, said Russell. "It's a great place to live and work. The great buzz from this milestone that we've achieved evaporates any doubts I've ever had about Rochester."

Vyriad CEO Dr. Stephen Russell speaks at an international cancer immunotherapy conference in New York in September. The Rochester-based company announced last week it will build a $9 million headquarters, research and manufacturing facility at the former IBM Rochester campus.

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