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University of Michigan Innovation Partnerships
University of Michigan Innovation Partnerships

Developing a Breakthrough Cancer Vaccine


“A transformational opportunity,” is how entrepreneur and business development specialist William Brinkerhoff describes EVOQ’s potential impact on cancer vaccine technology. He goes on to explain that, although cancer vaccines have made substantial progress, especially in the area of personalized vaccines, there remains a fundamental need for better vaccine delivery. “A key issue and the significant challenge,” he notes, “is how to effectively deliver the vaccines to the immune cells. And it’s a challenge that EVOQ Therapeutics is well on the way to solving.”

EVOQ was launched in 2016 in order to facilitate the development and commercialization of a new delivery technology for cancer vaccines developed by U-M professors from the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences Anna Schwendeman and James Moon. Collaborating within the university’s Biointerfaces Institute, the two devised a novel nanodisc delivery system based on synthetic high-density lipoprotein (HDL) human cholesterol. Animal studies to date have shown that, when combined with cancer antigens, the EVOQ technology not only eradicates tumors, but protects against a recurrence of the cancer.

An Innovative Approach with Groundbreaking Outcomes
The research partnership that led to EVOQ’s nanodisc technology is in many ways a tribute to the U-M Biointerfaces Institute. Established in 2012 , the Institute strives to break down traditional academic silos and promote interdisciplinary collaboration among diverse scientists with shared research interests and complementary skill sets.

As Schwendeman notes, “After working for 12 years in the pharmaceutical industry, focusing primarily on HDL-based nanodisc therapies, I was hesitant about transitioning to academe. But I was immediately attracted to the opportunities for collaboration that existed within the U-M Biointerfaces Institute.”

Moon, an assistant professor in Pharmaceutical Sciences and Biomedical Engineering, is also a member of the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center as well as the Biointerfaces Institute. His translational research program aims to develop new vaccines and improve immunotherapies.

Within a short time, the two had discovered their common interests and were engaged in a research project using nanodiscs to deliver cancer antigens. “We chose synthetic HDL as our delivery medium because it’s a mimic of a natural, non-toxic particle made in the body every day,” says Schwendeman. Multiple animal studies demonstrated that the nanodiscs, in combination with immune checkpoint inhibitors, eliminated tumors in mice, improved response rates, and established long-term immunity against relapse.

Translating the Technology to Clinical Settings
In 2016, Moon and Schwendeman teamed up with Brinkerhoff, a former Innovation Partnerships mentor-in-residence and a serial entrepreneur with longtime experience in the pharmaceutical industry. Throughout the start-up process, the team worked closely with Innovation Partnerships. “They’ve been our navigator,” Brinkerhoff says, “helping us work through the IP process, keeping us on track, making introductions to the venture capital community.”

Since then, with financial support from the MTRAC for Life Sciences program, the Forbes Institute, the Monroe-Brown Seed Fund, and Invest Detroit’s First Step Fund, the team had enough capital to further develop the technology then form a start-up and license the technology from the university. [MOU2]

Currently, EVOQ is collaborating with industry partners, putting their technology to the test with a wide range of cancer antigens. “These tests have demonstrated that our nanodiscs are extremely versatile, allowing us to take antigens with vastly different properties and achieve potent delivery to the immune system,” says Brinkerhoff.

With testing nearly completed, plans call for moving to clinical trials within two to three years. “Our goal is to get this product to patients as quickly as possible,” says Moon. “We want to see this technology in clinical use, and we are working hard to make sure our cancer vaccine delivery system has a chance to succeed and save lives.”