As a biotechnology investor it's always assuring when a speculative company decides to broaden its scope beyond a binary risk. It's always good to have one blockbuster product -- think Dendreon (NASDAQ:DNDN), Seattle Genetics (NASDAQ:SGEN) -- but far too often, a company will focus all of its energy on just one of its pipeline drugs and then put all others on the back burner.
ImmunoCellular Therapeutics (NYSEMKT:IMUC) is one of my favorite speculative biotech companies and has a candidate in ICT-107 that is sure to be a catalyst in treating one of man's most deadly diseases: cancer. The company could very easily focus all of its attention on its Phase IIb candidate and return very healthy gains to its shareholders for many years to come. However, the company has chosen to build its intellectual property, become well diversified in its treatment approach, and is preparing to tackle the deadly disease of ovarian cancer much like it has with glioblastoma.
ImmunoCellular has been one of the biotech industry's best performing stocks of the year, more than doubling YTD. The majority of its gains are due to the anticipation of data surrounding its Phase IIb drug, ICT-107, and an increase in optimism regarding interim clinical results expected in a year. To make a long story short, ICT-107 treats glioblastoma, which is one of the deadliest forms of brain cancer. Unfortunately, those who are diagnosed with the disease are faced with little hope prior to treatment, with only 6% surpassing three years of life with the disease. The brain cancer is very difficult to treat because of its roots, which can not be surgically removed. IMUC's lead candidate ICT-107 treats the disease from the root by targeting the specific cancer stem cells. It finds, treats, and eliminates the cancerous cells without harming healthy cells, and its success rate has been remarkable, with 40% of the patients treated with ICT-107 surpassing three years of life with no measurable disease.
As of late, the company has announced several developments surrounding another candidate, ICT-140 which is designed to treat ovarian cancer. This candidate is still in the early stages of development, but the company is placing a significant amount of emphasis on the future success of this drug. The company could easily choose to focus exclusively on ICT-107 and then worry about the other candidates at a later time. However, it's choosing to expand its pipeline and be better diversified for the next 10 years, not just the next 3 years.
The following is a summary of three deals done in the last month that give me a sense of where this company is heading:
1. John Hopkins - Worldwide rights to Mesothelin
I was particularly encouraged with the company's agreement with John Hopkins University back in late February. The company announced that it had been granted an exclusive worldwide license to the intellectual property surrounding the tumor associated antigen Mesothelin. What's exciting is that Mesothelin is highly expressed in several cancers, including ovarian, breast and pancreatic cancers, and since one of ICT-140's many purposes is to target different antigens, including Mesothelin, I feel confident that this development helps ensure the components are in place for ICT-140 to be a successful vaccine.
2. University of Pittsburg - EpHA-2
The John Hopkin's deal was very encouraging and further illustrates that the company feels strongly about developing its pipeline drugs and is digging into the best medical centers around the country for jewels. Therefore, when the company announced on Thursday that it had reached a deal with the University of Pittsburgh for intellectual property it became evident that IMUC was going to be very aggressive in its approach of product diversification. The company announced that it had reached an agreement with the University of Pittsburgh for its intellectual property surrounding EphA2 which is a tyrosine kinase receptor. EphA2 is well validated antigen target that has been studied in several cancers including breast, ovarian, liver, pancreatic and brain cancer. Because it's highly expressed in ovarian cancer it becomes another perfect target in the company's repertoire of antigens to develop ICT-140 with its already great technology antigen delivery technology.
3. University of Pennsylvania Deal - Technology Platform for Manufacturing Vaccines
You may wonder what the intellectual property means for this small company, besides it focusing on developing its pipeline. To understand it better one needs to point to the earlier deal whereby the company also secured patent protection around the manufacturing process to produce highly active dendritic cells after its licensing deal with UPenn. The UPenn licensing deal, in addition to the other licensing deals, is important because it gives IMUC a platform technology to arm the vaccine with different antigens. To better explain, the vaccine is able to attack the disease from different angles by virtue of targeting multiple antigens to surpass cancer cells many ways of survival. If you compare this luxury with larger companies in the industry such as Dendreon, that treats prostate and bladder cancer, it makes IMUC much more attractive with such broad possibilities of treatment, compared to the limitations of other companies due to a lack of intellectual property.
Technology Platform + Multiple Antigens = Multiple Cancers Targeted at Multiple Angles
ICT-140 uses the same technology to target and treat cancerous cells as what's been seen in ICT-107. We already know that ICT-107 has been a success but we weren't sure about the future potential of the company's pipeline. I find it very encouraging that the company is making moves to improve its intellectual property and strengthen its pipeline. An added bonus to treating the disease with so many antigens (and from so many different angles) is it opens the door to treating different cancers as well.
In addition to the additional antigens from licensing deals, the company's ICT-107 includes six antigens (gp-100, MAGE-1, TRP-2, IL13Ra, Her-2 and AIM-2) some of which are also expressed on melanoma, breast, ovarian and colon cancers. This level of diversification will then allow the company to directly test the vaccine's ability to target these different antigens, which are highly expressed in many other cancers as well. The magic to ICT-107 has been its ability to target the cancerous cell at the root, and considering it is using the same technology, I wouldn't be surprised to find that the vaccines are able to treat a multitude of diseases. If IMUC can prove that its vaccines can treat other cancers outside brain tumors then it could become a very attractive acquisition target with its impressive technology base and 10 plus patents that can not be duplicated.
I will conclude by saying that the intellectual property that IMUC is building serves two purposes: It develops the company's pipeline and allows the company to test its drug on an array of antigens. Both purposes are exciting to investors who believe in this technology and its ability to cure such a deadly list of cancers. The company is making the right moves and is well-positioned for success with its diversified rights to intellectual property and 10 patents surrounding its technology, along with nearly 20 patents pending.
The patent portfolio is another catalyst for success with IMUC having a very diversified patent portfolio, this diversification is very important to investors (just look at the effect of uncertainty surrounding a patent had on Amarin (NASDAQ:AMRN). I believe that the company's decision to focus on acquiring rights to these antigens is its best move at the moment, and could have several long lasting effects that we are yet to realize. This is a technology that has shown remarkable progress in the treatment of brain cancer, and if IMUC can prove that its technology can work in other areas of cancer, then the sky is the limit for this stock.
Disclosure: I am long IMUC.
Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and should not be used to make any investment decisions, without first consulting with financial advisor.