Exton-based Morphotek is transforming cancer research by harnessing the power of molecules.
Morphotek Inc. is attempting to do something huge—on a molecular level. In its efforts to develop new cancer-fighting drugs, the Exton-based biotech firm is on the frontier of cancer therapy research with a technology its founders developed only eight years ago.
"We've been able to put together a therapeutic pipeline of molecules that are targeting certain cancers, inflammation or infectious diseases," says Dr. Nicholas Nicolaides, one of Morphotek's founders. "This truly is the wave of the future."
The technology, which Nicolaides helped invent while he was still a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins Medical School, is called morphogenics. It involves manipulating the process of DNA repair that occurs during cell division to accelerate the rate of genetic evolution. Morphotek has focused its efforts on applying morphogenics to cells producing antibodies that are able to bind to single molecules found in disease cells and not in normal cells.
In other words, morphogenics is a new, highly useful tool for developing therapies for cancer, inflammation and infectious diseases. For example, instead of targeting all of a cancer patient's cells—as is the case in chemotherapy—morphogenics aides in the development of molecules that will target only diseased areas.
But the company, founded in 2000, could not have reached its current level of success without the help of a host of investors, including the U.S. Department of Defense, Ben Franklin Technology Partners, the University Science Center, local angel investors and the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.
"We've been able to tap into all these resources that Pennsylvania has out there for entrepreneurs trying to start businesses, and we're happy to be one of those successes," he says. "You know, three guys and an idea in a basement were able to establish a company generating somewhere between $20 and $30 million a year in revenue as part of a subsidiary of Japan's fourth largest pharmaceutical company."
Morphotek's other founders, Drs. Luigi Grasso and Phillip Sass, have helped to refine the company's technology and apply it to the development of biopharmaceuticals. The company's most advanced stage product is a molecule called Farletuzumab—a monochromal antibody developed using morphogenics that binds to molecules found in a variety of different cancers.
Farletuzumab (pronounced far’ le tooz’ oo mab) is about to be put through a pivotal trial—one of the final stages before it receives FDA approval. The molecule targets a specific protein associated with ovarian cancers, and it is Morphotek's most advanced product. If all goes well in the pivotal trial, which can take up to three years, the company could be prepared to submit a request to the FDA for approval in 2012.
Through clinical trials to date, clinicians treating patients with relapsed ovarian cancer have shown that Farletuzumab is able to increase the number of patients going into a follow-on remission as well as extend the length of a cancer's remission.
Morphotek currently has a pipeline of similar molecules in different stages of development, and Nicolaides and his partners are laying out a strategic plan to advance that pipeline as well as develop antibodies through collaborations with leading research universities. Their goal is eventually to have a pipeline of products that can be validated in clinical trials and made available to patients.
Part of that strategic plan involves rapid growth of the company. In 2007, Morphotek had 37 full-time employees; over the course of 2008 it more than doubled in size, and now employs 105. The company has also expanded its facility in Exton, Pa., from 20,000 to 65,000 square feet. With this kind of growth, Nicolaides is predicting a “continual increase in headcount” and a technology that will improve the lives of cancer patients all over the world.