In 2018, local biotech start-up AUM Biosciences (AUM) was looking to kick-off an “Asia to Global” vision through a focus on developing therapeutics for Asia-Pacific cancers, which could also be delivered to Western markets. That year, the oncology research company licensed ETC-206, now known as AUM001, a MNK inhibitor that was developed by a legacy unit of EDDC, the Experimental Therapeutics Centre (ETC). The founders were really impressed with the potential of the science that the MNK inhibitor represented and were very keen to develop a locally born Singaporean technology. Subsequently, AUM completed a Phase 1 multiple ascending dose study of AUM001.
The company was recently successful in raising S$27 million of Series A funding, which will fuel AUM Biosciences’ vision of developing a world-class biotech pipeline focused on drugging what many consider as undruggable targets. The company will also be commencing Phase 2 clinical trial programmes for AUM001 and another cancer clinical drug candidate in its pipeline, AUM601. Shivaji Rikka, Research Manager at EDDC, spoke with Vishal Doshi, CEO and co-founder of AUM, about the company’s genesis, its guiding philosophy and their experience partnering with EDDC.
“The company really works for one stakeholder, and that is patients.”
It all started with a conversation between then co-workers at IQVIA, Dr. Harish Dave and Vishal Doshi. They both realized that they shared a desire to provide more, and more directly, for patients through drawing from their years of experience in the industry. After much contemplation, Doshi decided to take the plunge in 2017. He spent six months, much of that on the beach at the East Coast Park, to clear his thoughts and draft a business proposal.
Quite like the tale of David and Goliath, Doshi shared that the creation of the company was centred around finding a model that could avoid the astronomically expensive and low success rates of the “Big Pharma” R&D process. He explained that the cost of capital required to fund drug development, as well as the cost of projects that failed in development, are ultimately borne by patients and can cause greater financial pressure on patients. Thus, the big question for AUM was: “How can we build a business model that allows a biotech to achieve proof-of-concept of a drug candidate in the shortest possible time, with the least amount of capital invested?”. The answer, the co-founders felt, was in addressing the high unmet needs in Oncology by “[focusing] on innovative clinical trial design and leveraging geographical efficiencies”.
Positioned to lead the wave of disruptive innovation in Asian oncology therapeutics
In a cancer fact sheet compiled by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, 40.8% of global cancer incidences recorded for 5 years ending 2020, occurred in Asia. Yet, according to Doshi, only 20% of approved drug treatments are made available in Asia due to a typical western-focused model that de-prioritises the Asian market for drug development over markets in the US and Europe. “Ideally if it’s approved in the U.S., it should be approved in Asia as well”, Doshi reasons, “If we could have an ‘Asia to Global’ strategy, where we do not differentiate between the therapeutics markets of the West and the East, there will be a seamless transition of approved drugs [globally] at any given point of time.”
AUM saw great potential in developing AUM001 as one of its first pipeline drugs – it was a small molecule drug with the potential for biomarker development. Doshi explained that “the main challenge with the MNK inhibitor class of drugs is the lack of selectivity. Drugs (MNK inhibitors) out in the market, or under development, were not highly selective”. AUM001 stood out (and still does) as a highly selective drug. Clinical trial data obtained so far shows that AUM001 is a very safe drug, thus making it ideal for development in combination therapy. AUM001 also has a relatively long half-life which would allow less frequent administration of the drug to patients.
One of the biggest differentiators, according to Doshi, is the indication that AUM is developing it in – colorectal cancer. “Colorectal cancer has different subtypes – CMS 1, 2, 3 and 4. And even the most advanced and highly commercially successful drugs – in the form of immuno-oncology and immunotherapy drugs – are struggling to find a result for CMS 1 and CMS 4 populations, which contributes to approximately 50% of the patients in colorectal cancer,” shared Doshi.
AUM’s Phase 2 clinical development programme will consist of a large study across six countries, with a target enrolment of approximately 300 patients using a biomarker-driven approach. “If we can show improvement in the quality of life, and are actually making an impact on colorectal cancer,” highlighted Doshi, “we are talking about a multi-billion-dollar opportunity just from one drug and one indication.”
An ongoing partnership with EDDC
Call it serendipity or otherwise, Doshi revealed that “the fact that we were based in Singapore, I just felt it was only meant to be that we start off with a Singaporean drug.” He added that while working with a local-made small molecule, it was only natural that a local company could help bring it to the next development phase as well.
He shared that as an intrinsic player in the local drug development ecosystem, EDDC has brought much understanding of the local landscape to the table in its partnership with AUM. Another added benefit of working with EDDC was the unhindered exchange of scientific information. Doshi revealed that EDDC was always open for feedback and discussions whenever AUM’s team got stuck on the development of the molecule.
As a partner walking in-step with AUM on the lengthy process of drug development, Doshi shares that “this really keeps pushing [us] to the next stages of development as well”. He firmly believes that there is much to be proud of in this partnership and that EDDC’s rapport with partners would do well in the wider global ecosystem.