European Inventor Award 2022: Cancer vaccines

The finalists of European Inventor Award 2022, organized by the European Patent Office (EPO) since 2006, were unveiled on Tuesday, May 17, 2022. This award is divided into four categories (Industry, Research, SMEs and non-EPO countries). Among the 13 finalists, three are French: Frédérick Pasternak, nominated in the “Industry” category, Claude Grison, nominated in the “Research” category, and Elodie Belnoue, nominated in the “SME” category. science and future interviewed these three finalists to discover their journey and the invention that earned them a nomination for this prestigious award. Discover our interview with Elodie Belnoue below. Please note that the four grand winners of the European Inventor Prize 2022 will be announced on June 21, 2022 during a grand ceremony that can be watched online at Meanwhile, netizens can vote for their favorite inventor to win the People’s Choice Award.

Elodie Belnoue and Madiha Derouazi, respectively immunologist and biotechnology engineer, are in the final to obtain the European Inventor Award 2022 in the SME (Small and Medium-sized Enterprises) category. The European Patent Office today revealed the names of the 13 finalist projects, three of which – including this one – are in French. The two researchers were selected to create their medical platform for the development of therapeutic vaccines dedicated to fighting cancer, KISIMA. This platform was designed by Geneva-based start-up AMAL Therapeutics, founded by Madiha Derouazi in 2012. For now, phase one clinical trials are ongoing in colorectal cancer patients. This biotech achievement represents much hope in the fight against cancer, which is responsible for one in six deaths worldwide and one in five in Europe. The winners of the 2022 edition will be announced during a virtual ceremony on June 21. Interview with Elodie Belnoue about her career as an immunologist and the vaccine project she is carrying out with the AMAL Therapeutics team, which she has been a part of since 2014.

Sciences et Avenir: What interested you in the development of therapeutic vaccines against cancer and how did this materialize in your professional career?

Elodie Belnoue : I have a background in immunology, I did a thesis in Paris at the Cochin Institute on the role of the immune system in the pathology of cerebral malaria. Then I did a post-doctorate in Geneva during which I studied the immune response of newborns. What has always motivated me in this research is the way the immune system works but also its role. When I started studying biology, I was interested in virology and, more specifically, how an immune system fights a virus. One thing leading to another, I became interested in many other things, until I met Madiha Derouazi in 2012. We were both assistant professors at the same university in Geneva. At that time, Madiha had a project very focused on biotechnologies and this desire to create this therapeutic vaccine. She therefore founded AMAL Therapeutics in 2012, a biotechnology start-up dedicated to developing a therapeutic cancer vaccine platform. The platform in question is called KISIMA, which means “well-being” in Swahili.

The idea of ​​developing a therapeutic cancer vaccine was a very innovative project and a real challenge, and Madiha Derouazi asked me to join her in 2014 to make that idea a reality. That same year, other employees were recruited and we started the adventure with a small team of 5 people. Today we are 24 employees. Initially, the teams dedicated themselves specifically to research (in vitro and in vivo) to prove that this new therapeutic vaccine was effective, then, little by little, it was necessary to think about the production and design of the clinical trial. That’s why we surrounded ourselves with a team dedicated to vaccine production processes, as well as a clinical team. Clinical trials are currently underway in Europe and the United States.

AMAL Therapeutics is, in my opinion, the realization of an idea: a therapeutic vaccine concept first transformed into a platform, then into a future treatment for cancer patients. It was a challenge that we took on as a team, a very beautiful story, a true “success story”.

What is a therapeutic vaccine platform and how does it work to fight cancer?

We know about vaccines against infectious diseases, which are prescribed for prevention so as not to develop the disease. In contrast, a therapeutic vaccine is intended for patients who are already sick. In the case of a cancer vaccine, the aim is to educate the immune system to recognize tumor cells. With Madiha Derouazi and our colleagues, we have therefore developed what we call a platform, which allows us to adapt and develop a specific vaccine according to the target cancer. Clinical trials for metastatic colorectal cancer began in July 2019.

Our KISIMA vaccine platform is a protein made up of three elements. First, a “cell-penetrating peptide”, which allows the vaccine to enter the specialized cells (dendritic cells) of the patient, then a “Toll-Like Receptor” agonist, which will allow the activation of specialized cells. Finally, the third part can be modified according to the cancer you want to target. This last part is called the multi-antigen domain. Each type of cancer expresses one or more antigens that are specific to it and that can be targeted with the vaccine. Thanks to the KISIMA platform, we can theoretically create vaccines to treat each type of cancer for which these antigens are identified.

After injection, the vaccine enters specialized cells and activates them. It will then be cut into “small pieces” (called peptides), which will be presented on the cell surface to T lymphocytes, with the aim of teaching those T cells to recognize these same peptides on the surface of cancer cells. Lymphocytes can be CD8 T lymphocytes or CD4 T lymphocytes. These two types of T cells are very important: CD8 T lymphocytes will have been educated to recognize and kill tumor cells. As for CD4 T lymphocytes, they have a role of “support” and stimulator of CD8 T cells so that they are active and ready to fight against tumor cells. These CD4 Ts are also very important for immunological memory. Indeed, in the event of a relapse, the immune system must be able to remember and recognize the tumor cells in order to fight them effectively.

What are the main challenges in realizing this vaccine platform and what are the next steps for Amal Therapeutics?

Many cancer vaccines have been tested in the last 10 years, with many disappointing results. The first difficulty was that these injections did not lead to good levels of CD8 T lymphocyte response with, in addition, poor immunological memory. In addition to its effectiveness, another major issue in creating a vaccine is its production. In the KISIMA platform, we work with the so-called chimeric protein, also called “fusion protein”. That is, it is composed of three elements that are not naturally combined with each other. The first construct for the colorectal vaccine (ATP128) established a large-scale production process.

As for the future, what we know in oncology is that it is often necessary to combine several treatments to optimize effectiveness against cancer. Currently, our vaccine is combined with a “checkpoint inhibitor” (anti-PD1), a compound that increases the action of CD8 T cells. Our acquisition by the Boehringer Ingelheim group now offers us unique opportunities to develop new immunotherapy combinations in order to offer cancer patients new therapeutic alternatives.

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