Advaxis, a pharmaceutical development company, has appointed a former marine officer to head the development of a promising new weapon against cancer.
Daniel J. O’Connor was named CEO of the College Road East-based R&D firm in August. Advaxis is developing drugs using immunotherapy, which is a technology that has long fascinated O’Connor. He first noticed it when he worked at ImClone in the early 2000s.
Although biopharmaceutical company ImClone made headlines in 2004 for being embroiled in the Martha Stewart insider trading scandal, behind the scenes researchers were exploring possible uses for a technique called immunotherapy. O’Connor started at ImClone in the legal department, and had worked his way up to senior VP by the time Eli Lilly bought the company in 2008.
“When you’re a lawyer for a science company, you have to know the science. As I learned what they were doing, my interest started in immunotherapy. My oldest son has severe food allergies, and the company started looking at defining and developing immunotherapy to treat food allergies using a live organism.”
The idea stuck with O’Connor, so much so that in the late 2000s, when then-Advaxis CEO Tom Moore told O’Connor how his company was planning to use immunotherapy to fight cancer, the idea fascinated him. “I immediately appreciated the beauty of the science,” O’Connor says. “Advaxis uses a live bacteria genetically altered to stimulate an immune response to attack cancer.”
O’Connor was brought on board as a consultant, making his way up to the senior management staff earlier this year, and earning the top management job this summer. Immunotherapy fascinated O’Connor because it is a way of turning the human body’s existing defense mechanism — the immune system — against cancer cells by introducing special, genetically modified bacteria.
To use a military analogy, when the bacteria is introduced in the body, the immune system’s perimeter guards recognize it and sound the alarm to say there is an invasion under way. Initially, the alarm is only a response to the bacterial invasion. However, the bacteria is designed to provoke a response that also alerts the immune system to the presence of the cancer tumor. Soon, the platoons, companies and battalions of the immune response are directed against the tumor itself.
It’s an analogy that ex-marine O’Connor uses, but it comes from Advaxis’s chief scientist, Robert Petit, who has devoted his career to immunotherapy. In more medical terms, the bacteria is Listeria monocytogenes, which is a dangerous organism that causes food poisoning. Advaxis modifies this bacteria to make it weaker, so it doesn’t cause an infection, and also so that it carries with it antigens that are the same as the antigens on a cancerous cell. Antigens are chemicals that bind with antibodies produced by the immune system. The end result is that the immune system ramps up to destroy antigens found on the bacteria, and therefore recognizes and attacks the cancer cells bearing the same antigens as if it were a bacterial infection.
The most promising part of the immunotherapy idea is that the bacteria can be modified to carry antigens matching different kinds of cancer. Advaxis’s first target is cancer associated with the HPV virus, which is late-stage cervical cancer.
The technology Advaxis is using was first invented by University of Pennsylvania scientist Yvonne Paterson in the late 1990s. Paterson is still helping Advaxis in the capacity of a consultant as they develop different Listeria strains and as they work to bring their most advanced version to market. Most recently, the company completed a preliminary efficacy study of their drug with 110 advanced cervical cancer patients in India. The company reported the results at the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting. The study showed that use of the drug prolonged survival in patients that received it, and that in some cases, it was effective against the HPV tumors. Patients also suffered flu-like side effects. This preliminary study does not by itself proves the drug works, but it paves the way for more conclusive trials that will be designed to show whether or not it is truly effective.
Currently, the company is at work moving their product through the FDA approval process, and has applied for “orphan drug “designation, which comes with government research grants for drugs that treat rare diseases.
O’Connor grew up in Westfield, where his father was general counsel for Lummus, a company that built chemical plants, and his mother was an antiques store owner and stay-at-home mom. After graduating from Boston University with an English degree, O’Connor joined the Marines as an officer, where he attained the rank of captain and served in the Persian Gulf in 1990. He graduated from Dickinson School of Law in 1992, and served as a criminal prosecutor before moving to the corporate world. After his stint at ImClone, O’Connor was general counsel and VP of Bracco Diagnostics, a pharma and medical device company. Today he lives in Pennington with his wife Kathleen, who is an attorney by training but is currently staying at home to take care of the couple’s three school-age sons, all of whom attend public school in the Hopewell Valley district.
Although immunotherapy has yet to yield a treatment for his son’s food allergies, O’Connor hopes that his company’s drugs will be helping patients beat cancer within five years. As CEO and president of Advaxis, O’Connor says his goal is to move the drug quickly through clinical trials, but without sacrificing “doing it right” for the sake of speed. He says the company is consulting with experts in the immunotherapy field to make sure they don’t make any mistakes. “It’s important we move this product to market as quickly as possible, but do it in a way that doesn’t jeopardize the quality.” One reason Advaxis chose cervical cancer as its first target is that there is currently no other effective treatment for late-stage recurrent cervical cancer.
O’Connor said his second goal is to make sure the company is financed for future operations. His third goal is to see Advaxis HPV licensed for use in China and India, while proceeding with FDA trials that would allow its use in the United States. Meanwhile, the University of Pennsylvania is conducting its own trial of a version of the drug targeting breast cancer in dogs. Although Advaxis is primarily a human pharmaceutical company, and not a veterinary specialist drugmaker, O’Connor says this secondary use shows the flexibility of the immunotherapy platform. They are also moving to make a version of their therapy targeting head and neck cancer.
O’Connor says he hopes that if the drugs prove successful, Advaxis will join the ranks of major pharmaceutical companies headquartered in New Jersey. “I’m very confident that the team in place is going to rise to meet the challenges,” he says. “I’m looking forward to growing the company in New Jersey. New Jersey is a wonderful place for biopharma companies, and I’m looking forward to making this our long term home.”
Advaxis, 305 College Road East, Princeton. 609-452-9813. Daniel J. O’Connor, CEO. www.advaxis.com.