Turning research into opportunity

Turning research into opportunity

Scientists at McGill University launch their own company to take anticancer therapies from lab to market
July 1, 2006
Gordon Shore had never thought about starting a company before his investigation into apoptosis—the body’s natural process of eliminating or discarding diseased or damaged cells—took him into the field of cancer research.
 

After all, Shore, a biochemist at McGill University, is an academic. His focus is research, not business. But in the mid-1990s, Shore and another McGill researcher, Philip Branton, began looking at the relationship between cancer and apoptosis. They concentrated on finding out why chemotherapy doesn’t work for some cancer patients. The theory is that if the mechanisms that signal cells to self-destruct are prematurely disrupted or turned off, then chemotherapy won’t work.

If the body could reassert its natural ability to destroy injured or damaged cells, it would eliminate cancerous cells, they reasoned. Today, Shore is the chief scientific officer at Gemin X, a Montreal-based biotechnology company that he and Branton co-founded to discover and develop drugs that could reinstate apoptosis in cancer cells. The company is about to take GX15-070, a compound spun out of their research at McGill, into Phase 2 clinical trials to pit its effects against cancers of the blood. The company’s latest round of venture capital financing landed it $65 million US to shepherd the development of this anticancer therapy.

Extending their know-how beyond a university setting and into the private sector was the only way they could take their discovery all the way from laboratory to clinic, says Shore. “It’s a question of resources, expertise, and infrastructure,” he explains. “Public-sector institutions don’t currently have the capacity to take a drug from development to market. To date, that process has been most effectively done through commercial enterprises.”

Shore and Branton didn’t want to just hand over their discovery to a large pharmaceutical company either. They wanted to maintain control of the process. “We felt that early development of the compound would best be managed in our own hands,” Shore says.

But by continuing to conduct research and teach at McGill, both scientists have also maintained their commitment to the public system that helped to fund their initial research and let them generate the ideas that launched Gemin X. It’s a valuable partnership that allows expertise to flow between the public and private worlds of research. “That’s one of the advantages of what I have done. Now I can bring back expertise and advice to the university, and knowledge of the drug development process,” says Shore.

His colleague David Thomas, a Canada Research Chair in Molecular Genetics at McGill, agrees that Shore and Branton’s experience benefits both the university and the taxpayers who fund it. “It’s an advantage to the taxpayer to see discoveries developed into a more useful format than just a patent or a publication,” Thomas says. “Here’s a compound that’s going to have a major impact in oncology”.

Benefits

Gemin X has attracted millions of dollars in new venture capital investments to Canada, some of which has enabled the firm to hire more than 60 people, and contribute to the Montreal area’s cluster of expertise in biotechnology and biopharmaceutical companies.

The company’s ties and proximity to McGill University—a source of highly trained personnel and graduate students—benefit the firm as well. “The value to Gemin X of having senior scientists such as Drs. Shore and Branton working at McGill is that they are involved in cutting-edge research, which Gemin X then gains first-hand knowledge of,” says Dan Giampuzzi, the company’s CEO. If Gemin X’s compounds prove to be successful anticancer therapies, cancer patients in Canada and around the world will benefit, as will health care systems.

“If successful, we will have an impact on the burden of cancer, which has huge health and financial implications,” says Shore. He hopes that eventually, the public sector will gain the capacity to do what he has done in the private sector. “I think there’s an interest in the public sector to start building those kinds of capabilities at universities,” he says.

Partners

Gemin X, the biotechnology company formed by senior scientists Gordon Shore and Philip Branton at McGill University, is engaged in a number of research collaborations aimed at creating the next generation of novel cancer therapies. In addition to McGill University, Gemin X partners include the Montreal Biotechnology Research Institute, Université Laval, the Université de Montréal, and a number of biotech companies.

Novel compounds developed in university labs are tested against targeted genes, proteins, or nucleic acids for reactions. If Gemin X sees promise in the results, the company can enter into a license agreement with the universities or laboratories to develop the compounds further. “Gemin X is well suited to understand the needs of university researchers in translating their discoveries into important benefits for patients,” says Giampuzzi.