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Cancer compound leads to major licensing deal

BY Jordan Goebig

Researchers affiliated with the Cancer Center at Illinois and the IGB discovered a novel small molecule compound that is now the subject of a new global licensing agreement between the pharmaceutical company Bayer AG and the cancer drug development company Systems Oncology LLC. Systems Oncology originally licensed the IP related to the compound in 2018, and this new deal will now give Bayer the exclusive rights to develop the compound, currently called ERSO, as a cancer therapy. This compound was originally discovered by the laboratories of chemistry professor Paul Hergenrother (ACPP leader/MMG) and biochemistry professor David Shapiro. Their research was the first to show that the compound can effectively target and kill certain cancer cells, especially breast cancer cells that express the estrogen receptor. 

An estimated 70% of women diagnosed with breast cancer have ER-positive breast cancer. According to Dr. Hergenrother, these types of breast cancer cells are very sensitive to ERSO, which rapidly and selectively kills these cancer cells. 

Successful translation of university inventions beyond the laboratory requires significant resources and access to experienced teams of industry experts who could position new compounds for development and commercial success. In 2016, U of I first partnered with Systems Oncology to successfully advance another small molecule invented by Dr. Hergenrother towards the clinic, so when it came to selecting an industry collaborator to drive the development for ERSO, the decision was made in 2018 to partner again with the Systems Oncology team.  

“Dr. Hergenrother and Dr. Shapiro are brilliant investigators who are at the cutting edge of cancer research, so we are honored to be collaborating with them. Our systems biology investigations suggested that the compound they invented had the potential to selectively kill cancer cells, and there were clues that the mechanism of action might block cancer cells from evolving resistance, but we needed more data to better understand the networks involved and to validate that the compound had potential to be developed as a viable drug product. So, over the last few years, we committed our experts, resources, and capital to build ERSO into an industrial quality therapeutic program. Working closely with Dr. Hergenrother and Dr. Shapiro, we made rapid progress in that regard, and the recent ERSO deal between Systems Oncology and Bayer further reiterates that we are not the only ones who think this program has transformative potential,” said Dr. Spyro Mousses, CEO of Systems Oncology.

"From the beginning, Systems Oncology saw the clinical potential of our discovery. Systems Oncology turned out to be a perfect partner for us, and now knowing that Bayer, a leading global pharmaceutical company, will take the lead on the development and commercialization of ERSO speaks volumes about the potential societal impact Illinois research can have,” said Hergenrother, who also is the deputy director of the Cancer Center at Illinois.

Hergenrother and Shapiro research was further empowered through collaborations with other Illinois cancer researchers, the imaging resources available at the U of I, and strategic collaborations with Systems Oncology, all of which contributed to the success of the new compound. 

“Using the very sophisticated imaging technology available at the university allowed us to actually visualize live tumors and to see how well the drug was doing, and it allowed us to see how tumors have spread to other sites,” Shapiro said. “We would not have been able to do this without these tools.”  

“Bayer has great resources to drive successful clinical development,” Shapiro said. “Our Illinois research lab will continue doing what we do best on the research side with the hope that our findings can further empower the development efforts.”

Erik Nelson (ACPP), a CCIL member and professor of molecular and integrative physiology, provided essential guidance to the scientists through their tumor studies. Timothy Fan (ACPP/CGD), a professor of veterinary clinical medicine and CCIL Research Program Leader, was their expert in toxicology and pharmacology. 

“The partnership between myself and Paul was aided by a terrific team of Illinois collaborators. We really have amazing people at the university who have contributed beyond this partnership, and it’s enabled creation of this very robust and powerful set of data,” Shapiro said. 

Read the full press release on the licensing agreement between Bayer AG and Systems Oncology, LLC. 

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