Tobacco to cure cancer
Targeted therapy - blood and solid cancers
Project from 2018 Allocated sum 695 000,00 €
In 2018, the Foundation Fournier-Majoie selected a project presented by Dr Bertrand Magy, CEO of the start-up atb therapeutics based near Marche-en-Famenne (B), which aims to design a new class of cancer drugs based on plants.
It all started with the observation that the cancer treatment arsenal lacked a targeted therapy molecule that was both much more powerful and much less toxic.
The idea of this molecule was put on paper and presented to a few market players. They found it interesting but … was it feasible? Bertrand Magy, Max Houry and Ludwig Camusot drew up a business plan and defined – planned – budgeted the steps necessary to demonstrate the concept.
It was at this point that the Foundation Fournier-Majoie came to support the project, along with other investors (such as Business Angels, Noshaq, Financière Spin Off Luxembourgeoise and Invest Sud) and chose to support atb therapeutics. EUR 475,000 was allocated to this ambitious project, with an additional EUR 220,000 in 2021.
How targeted therapies work
Unlike chemotherapy, which acts like an atomic bomb, failing to distinguish between good and bad cells, targeted therapies aim at cancer cells with maximum precision.
These therapies involve either altering the way cancer cells function or administering an active ingredient (a chemotherapeutic agent, toxin or radioactive element) to destroy them.
Like every cell, cancer cells make proteins to generate certain actions (dividing to grow, creating new blood vessels, blocking programmed cell death). On the surface of cancer cells, these proteins form receptors that become the intended target.
Like a homing missile, ADCs (Antibody Drug Conjugate) are used to hit the target. They consist of 3 parts: a homing head (the monoclonal antibody) to which an active principle (called a payload) is attached with a link (called a linker).
Once injected into the body, the antibody will seek out its target and bind very precisely to the target receptor. The cell will react and absorb it completely (endocytosis). This is when the active ingredient is released to destroy or alter the cancer cell.
This is what atb therapeutics wants to improve.
Producing the ADC missile is difficult
The process of producing antibody conjugates (ADCs) against cancer is particularly complex and must address three issues: antibody specificity/selectivity – strength of binding – amount of toxic agent delivered.
Much like a high security lock, each target has unique characteristics that require the homing head (antibody) to have the correct key.
The link (linker) between the homing head and the load must be strong, to ensure that the load is not released before entering the cancer cell.
Finally, the risks of intolerance are proportional to the nature and quantity of active product released in the wrong place.
An innovative solution: atbodies (Antibodies Toxins Bioengineered)
In this project, the missile components are produced in one piece, in a single step, by a plant.
Atbodies have 4 significant advantages:
They are an all-in-one (unlike ADCs which are composed of several joined parts) and therefore present a real solidity.
Much more powerful
The protein toxins produced are much more concentrated than chemical agents. As a result, less should be administered to obtain the desired therapeutic efficacy.
Much less toxic
Being an all-in-one, the atbody is not at risk of losing its load between the injection site and cancer cells. Thanks to this, it would drastically decrease the side effects.
The mastery of the technology makes it possible to generate atbodies in 2x less time than traditional ADCs.
What about tobacco?
The plant producing the atbodies is a plant derived from tobacco. Bacteria are injected into its leaves which carry the description (DNA code) of the vehicle to be produced. This plant responds perfectly to the order and produces the all-in-one vehicle requested.
What is the status of this project?
Several atbodies have been tested and are entering the final phase of selection of the drug candidate: which atbody for which pathologies. The production process has been mastered. For the atbody to be administered to humans, there are still several stages that require substantial investment and are subject to strict regulations.
The objective is to enter the clinical phase in 2023.
Which cancers could be treated?
atb therapeutics has chosen to start with blood cancer (e.g. non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma*). Other combinations are being developed to treat solid tumours.
* Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma affects more than 540,000 people and causes nearly 260,000 deaths worldwide each year
atb therapeutics in a few figures: 2018 – 15 – 4 – 30
Founded in 2018, now employing 15 people, 4 patents filed, EUR 30 million representing the next stage of funding sought.