BerGenBio’s inhibitors show promise

A pill to treat cancer?


Photo courtesy of BerGenBio
Oral medication bemcentinib can be used to block the spread of four cancers where there are still many patients whose cancers do not respond to current treatments or whose cancers become resistant to treatments: advanced lung cancer, breast cancer, melanoma, and acute myeloid leukemia.

Rasmus Falck

Suppose one could take a pill to help improve treatment and prevent the spread of cancer? BerGenBio is a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company working toward that goal by studying the relationship between AXL kinase and AXL kinase inhibitors. AXL has been shown to play an important role in tumor cell survival through suppressing the immune system and reducing the body’s ability to fight cancer, while also causing a transformation in tumor cells that make them more aggressive, more resistant to drug treatments, and more likely to spread. The Bergen-based company is a world leader in understanding this central role of AXL kinase.

They are also focused on developing AXL kinase inhibitors to treat multiple cancers, primarily to establish bemcentinib, formerly known as BGB324, the company’s most advanced candidate, “as a potential cornerstone of combination therapy for multiple cancers.”
According to the company, bemcentinib is a powerful small-molecule AXL inhibitor that can be taken orally. Bemcentinib is the only selective AXL inhibitor in clinical development and currently in a broad program of Phase II clinical trials in cancer patients. The initial foci are on four cancers where there are still many patients whose cancers do not respond to current treatments or whose cancers become resistant to treatments. These cancers include advanced lung cancer, breast cancer, melanoma, and acute myeloid leukemia.

The trials are testing bemcentinib in these cancers either as a single agent or in combination with existing therapies, including immunotherapies (Merck & Co.’s Keytruda), targeted therapies (e.g. Roche’s Tarceva, Novartis’s Taflinar, and GSK’s Mekinist), and chemotherapy (e.g. docetaxel). The belief is that for patients whose tumors show high levels of AXL, use of bemcentinib will help restore the ability of the immune system to kill cancer cells, and also make the cells more vulnerable to existing therapies and thereby improve overall treatment results.

BerGenBio was established in 2007 by Bergen Teknologioverføring (BTO), Unifob AS, and researchers from the Department of Biomedicine at University of Bergen. About BTO, CEO/co-founder Richard Godfrey stated, “They have been a valuable partner supporting and establishing a viable business based on our deep understanding of the biology of aggressive cancers.”


Photos courtesy of BerGenBio
Two of the co-founders of BerGenBio, Professor James Lorens, Chief Scientific Officer (left) and Richard Godfrey, CEO.

Today, the company consists of prominent and experienced researchers, including the two scientific founders, Professor James Lorens and Dr. David Micklem. Their goal is to identify appropriate AXL inhibitor candidates and develop these drugs alone and through strategic partnerships in multiple indications. The company retains all options for the future commercialization of its products, according to BTO. Lorens serves on the BerGenBio management team as Chief Scientific Officer, while also working as Professor of Biomedicine at the University of Bergen. He has extensive experience directing team projects in cancer research and development with major pharmaceutical and biotech companies. Lorens’s international research lab includes 22 people. Dr. Mick­lem is the company’s Director of Biomarkers and Assay Development, focused on identifying a diagnostic method to help predict which patients will be most likely to respond to bemcentinib treatment.

Godfrey is an experienced pharmaceutical company executive, who has worked in corporate, commercial development, and R&D roles in several life sciences companies over the past 25 years.

In March 2017, the company entered into a collaborative agreement with Merck & Co. in Kenilworth, N.J., a leader in developing novel cancer therapies. “This gives us the opportunity to evaluate the clinical potential of bemcentinib in combination with Keytruda in advanced lung and breast cancer, two of the areas of significant unmet medical need,” said Godfrey.

They are also partnering with ADC Therapeutics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard Medical School, MD Anderson Cancer Center, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and Haukeland University Hospital (Bergen).

At the same time, BerGenBio announced launch as an Initial Public Offering. According to chairman of the board Stein Holst Annexstad, “This was a natural step in the company’s development to secure a broader, long-term shareholder base. In addition, the listing will enhance the startup’s visibility among potential partners, ensure organized and regulated trading of the shares, as well as provide access to the capital markets. ”

Late last year, the company was accepted for listing at the Oslo Stock Exchange. The legendary Trond Mohn is the largest shareholder (29.89 percent). The other main investors are Investinor and Sarsia Seed. The company is in a phase where it burns capital. Results from last year showed operative expenses at NOK 183.7 million and a loss after taxes at almost the same.

Rasmus Falck is a strong innovation and entrepreneurship advocate. The author of “What do the best do better” and “The board of directors as a resource in SME,” he received his master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He currently lives in Oslo, Norway.

This article originally appeared in the July 13, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.


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