Ofer Sharon is the CEO of OncoHost, a biotech company in the precision oncology space. A physician by training, Sharon has leveraged his experience in pharma drug development and entrepreneurship to lead OncoHost through the development of PROphet, the company’s host response profiling platform, which will launch in the U.S. for non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) patients in February 2023.
What inspired you to move over from the pharmaceutical industry to biotech?
Working within the pharma industry gave me the chance to acquire tools that I would never have as a young biotech entrepreneur, including insights into the processes, strategy, and complexity of drug development. I have always had an entrepreneurial mind and attitude, and being a medical doctor only fueled my passion to build companies that can make a real difference in patients’ lives. I am grateful for my experience in pharma, as it gave me an understanding and appreciation of the market, the capabilities, and the approach needed to develop a drug and market it.
Please could you tell us a bit about OncoHost and the PROphet platform
OncoHost’s co-founder, chief scientist, and head of the Integrated Cancer Research Center at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, Yuval Shaked, discovered during his research that a patient’s biological response to anti-cancer treatment, known as the ‘host response,’ may facilitate and support tumor growth and spread. In what seems like a paradoxical reaction to treatment, our own body may actually help tumor cells evade the effects of cancer treatment.
This discovery led Shaked to establish OncoHost, a diagnostic precision oncology company that focuses on understanding the complex biological system that is the human body to predict patient response, and ultimately overcome treatment resistance.
OncoHost has developed a precision oncology tool that enables oncologists to provide personalized treatment to their cancer patients – PROphet. The first-of-its-kind diagnostics platform employs high-throughput protein analysis technology, scanning approximately 7,000 proteins in a patient’s plasma to identify proteomic patterns that decipher the cancer resistance mechanisms predictive of treatment response, providing physicians with actionable clinical insights. The test requires one blood draw taken prior to treatment and is analyzed at our CLIA-certified laboratory in North Carolina.
A personalized report is then sent to the oncologist with an answer to three important clinical questions:
1. First, what is the best first line treatment for this patient? Specifically, should immunotherapy be administered as monotherapy, or in combination with chemotherapy?
2. Next, for those patients who are not likely to benefit from treatment, what are their active resistance mechanisms? The resistance mechanisms involve a complex interplay between the host, the tumor, and the therapy.
3. Finally, what is the best treatment strategy for this patient based on their active resistance mechanisms?
Since 2019, we have been running an extensive clinical trial program with leading academic and clinical partners to test the validity of PROphet. To date, our test is showing extremely high accuracy in predicting how melanoma and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) patients respond to various therapies and help to guide oncologists on the optimal treatment plan for each patient.
Our technology is supported by multiple scientific peer-reviewed studies, some of which have been published in the Journal for Immunotherapy of Cancer, the Journal of Clinical Oncology, Nature Reviews Cancer and more.
With PROphet being the spearhead of our larger vision, we plan on expanding our research and technologies to further cancer indications. The first market we are targeting is late-stage immunotherapy-treated cancer patients, and the first indication we are tackling is non-small cell lung cancer. Our PROphet test for NSCLC will be launching in the U.S. in February 2023.
What clinical issue is OncoHost looking to solve?
For many years, researchers have tried to understand why some cancer patients respond to treatment while others do not. The National Cancer Institute named “resistance to therapy” as one of the major challenges in clinical oncology today.
Over the past decade, the oncology industry has been witnessing the revolution of the precision approach to therapy, leading to the realization that ‘one-size-fits-all’ treatment protocols are not the way to conquer cancer. Unfortunately, in many cases of advanced cancer, clinicians struggle to find reliable biomarkers to guide their complex decision-making process. This challenge results in a trial-and-error pattern of guesswork.
In this unsustainable situation, patients are wasting the one thing they can’t afford to lose – time. Not to mention the waste of resources, the frustration due to treatment failure, and unnecessary adverse events.
In a recent article, Bishal Gyawali, medical oncologist, and professor at Queen’s University Department of Oncology, discussed in beautiful detail the clinical issue that OncoHost is trying to solve.
Gyawalk said: “Immunotherapy has been transformational in the treatment of certain cancers such as melanoma and lung cancers. And we can reasonably congratulate ourselves for the transformation we’ve seen in patients’ lives.
These are drugs that are improving the longevity and quality of patients’ lives. However, I think that the paradigms of immunotherapy and precision medicine have become antithetical to each other. We have let our precision medicine principle of ‘right dose for the right patient at the right time’ fly out the window when it comes to immunotherapy.
“To put it simply, immunotherapy feels anything but precise. With immunotherapy, we are treating too many patients too long too often, and at too high a dose. Contrary to the premise of precision medicine, we don’t have good biomarkers to predict a patient’s response to immunotherapy, nor do we have good biomarkers to predict toxicities. Some patients derive long-term benefit from immunotherapy, whereas others don’t benefit at all.”
Our PROphet biomarker model is here to solve this exact issue.
Why is the timing right for innovation in biotech in the precision oncology space?
The timing is right for several reasons. Firstly, we have reached a plateau in the efficacy of the current treatment modalities available to cancer patients. If we look at recent publications, we see marginal improvements in the efficacy of treatment, if any. There has been no improvement in toxicity profiles of drugs. In fact, we’re seeing more because we’re dealing with many more combinations of treatments. The questions many clinicians are asking themselves are: “Am I choosing the best treatment for my patient?” and “Are there any tools or biomarkers that can better direct my treatment planning process?”
Secondly, we are seeing hundreds, if not thousands, of cancer treatment combinations currently being tested in clinical trials around the world. If we look two to five years into the future, clinicians will have a choice between not one, two or three combination options; they will have to choose between 10 to 15 modalities! How can they possibly make a choice without biomarkers or precision medicine tools to guide their decision-making strategy?
Thirdly, we are facing a great cost issue. Across the world, payors are struggling to pay the huge amounts of money required to provide funding for the expensive medications becoming available to patients.
Policymakers say they want to lower health care costs, yet the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) is once again pursuing policies that will exacerbate consolidation pressures. Oncology has one of the highest rates of consolidation, largely driven by payment disparities across different sites of service. If we want treatments to be covered, we need better biomarkers that prove the treatment will work. Payors simply will not continue paying for treatments that are only efficacious for the minority of patients.
Lastly, innovation in biotech in the precision oncology space is currently very opportunistic. Thanks to advanced AI and machine learning, today we have the required tools to overcome the many clinical challenges we face.
In short, the time is now.