Dr. Ofer Sharon is a physician and entrepreneur with 17+ years of experience in the oncology drug development industry and CEO of OncoHost.
Ofer is leading OncoHost in developing technology that utilizes a simple blood test to help inform doctors which cancer treatments are most likely to help specific patients. This system, PROphet, is a first-of-its-kind diagnostic platform that combines proteomic analysis with AI to predict patient response to immunotherapy and identify resistance associated processes, providing clinicians with potential combination strategies to overcome treatment resistance. PROphet will identify up to 1,000 possible proteins in a patient’s blood plasma. The ultimate goal is to find effective treatments for specific cancer patients more quickly. So far, the system is showing about 90% accuracy in predicting how cancer patients respond to various therapies.
OncoHost recently announced its collaboration with the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) to open eight clinical trial sites in the UK to assess cancer patients’ responses to immunotherapy.
GU Oncology Now recently spoke to Dr. Sharon about this news, and about the potential impact of precision medicine in cancer.
GU Oncology Now: Can you talk to us about this collaboration and its significance?
Dr. Ofer Sharon: Yes, of course, this is a part of it, therefore we have an ongoing clinical trial that we run in several countries around the world. It was important for us to make sure that we have a presence with this clinical trial in different countries, not focused only on Israel or the USA and specifically in the UK. We found very interesting collaboration opportunity because the product that we are developing relies much on issues that are related to the form of the economics, cost efficiencies and potentially saving costs of very expensive drugs. And in that sense, I think that the UK is very advanced compared to other countries, the ability to assess and the willingness to look at that aspect of the very crazy medication, the very expensive medication we are using in oncology today. So for us, it was an important opportunity and we really worked out to make sure that we have the presence of our clinical trial in the UK also.
How big an impact has precision medicine had on cancer therapy?
So it’s an interesting question. I think that the potential is huge. If we look at the actual impact, I think we are just scratching the surface here. I think we got used to look at the oncology medications as lifesaving drugs. And when you’re talking about lifesaving drugs, there’s really no issue of cost, right? You are saving lives. They said the truth is if you are not saving lives with oncology drugs, we’re extending life and improving quality of life. And despite the major progress that we’ve done, we are yet to conquer cancer with medications only. Precision medicine offers the opportunity to change and personalized the cancer treatment to patients and allow health system to actually save money. So we do have some product in the market today, the pioneers of Precision medicine, companies like a Foundation One or Guardant Health, that are looking at mutations in the tumor. Unfortunately, these kind of tests relevant only to some of the patients, because not all of the patients have the mutations that are relevant, and therefore there’s a big chunk of the patient population that doesn’t have any access to precision medicine.
This is one thing and the other thing of course is, the cost and method of market access of those tests. So I think that we are yet to see the full impact of precision medicine in the coming years. I have no doubt that it’s coming, but we are still not there.
Can you talk to us about the ongoing Prophetic study and its significance?
So this is a unique trial. I think the largest of its kind, it’s currently open for recruitment for patients with lung cancer, non-small cell lung cancer and small cell lung cancer. So both of the types and melanoma and we are going to add more indications in the near future. And basically this is the first time when we try to look longitudinally on the proteomic analysis using patients plasma in order to predict response to immunotherapy, but also in order to provide clinicians with insights on potential future interventions. So this is a multicenter multinational clinical trials are quoting in the USA, UK, Israel and in Europe, over 30 sites right now, and recruiting about 2000 patients. Currently we are at 600 patients and moving forward. And initial results from these trials are showing us that we can actually use it out to predict response with accuracy of over 90%, very early in the treatment of the patient. So potentially the initial product or the first product that the company is going to launch based on the results of this clinical trial. We enable clinician to understand whether their patient is going to respond or not as early as two weeks after the beginning of treatment. While today, it’s usually at least three to six months until we know if our patient is responding or not.
What are some of the challenges of treating cancer patients with immunotherapy?
I think that the biggest challenge in immunotherapy is momentous progress in cancer therapy. And I am proud to be part of the group that launched Keytruda for the first two indication while I was the head of medical affairs for Merck in Israel. Nevertheless, we know today that still most patients will not respond to treatment or will not benefit from treatment. And the statistics, it really depends on the indications, but if we take the average, we are talking about a response rate of about 20%. So you can imagine if we have 10 patients waiting in the waiting room, outside of the clinic and treated with immunotherapy, only two of them will actually benefit from the treatment. The problem is we don’t know which two are going to benefit from the treatment. So what we see today is that patients are being treated for three, six, even nine months until we can actually figure out if they’re going to respond to the treatment or not.
And those nine months are associated of course, with cost of drug cost of adverse events. And of course the cost of the patient quality of life and think about a patient that receives a notification after nine months of therapy from his physician that is not responding to treatment. So a lot of components here, both in terms of costs direct and indirect emotional burden of the patients and of course, lots of expensive treatment. So I think these are the big challenges today. And I think that what we need to do in the precision medicine industry is come up with solutions that will enable us to better understand which patient will actually benefit from equipment and hence should be treated.
Can you speak to us about your PROphet platform, and how it can impact the fight against cancer?
Yeah. So this is very exciting. I think that what we have developed is at least to the best of my knowledge, first in class as technology, what we do is we analyze the patient’s plasma, using simple blood tests. We don’t require tissue samples or anything like that. Just a blood test from the patient. We analyze about 7,000 proteins in the patient plasma. And based on the changes in the levels of the proteins, in the interaction between the protein, we develop a tool that is using machine learning components and bioinformatic components in order to answer three questions for the clinicians. The first question is, will my patient respond to treatment? The second one is, why does the resistance of cure? and the third one, what should I do next? Which combination should I choose for my patient in order to improve the odds of the patient to respond?
So once commercial, this product will allow physicians not only to understand or to realize very early on in the treatment where the patient is going, but also help them to choose the next steps. And this is something that simply doesn’t exist today. What we have today, when we reach the second and third line stages of the disease management, it’s a lot of trial and error, unfortunately. Nothing really directs us. There are no existing biomarkers that tell us how to choose the treatment for our patients. And I think this is where a platform comes in and provide clinicians with insights that are currently non existent.
Any closing thoughts?
We started working on our pipeline products and for us based on some of the initial clinical results that we have, I think the division is to develop a tool that will enable continuous monitoring of the patient across the continuum of the disease, before treatment during the treatment and when the patient progresses. Basically providing clinicians with dashboard that guides them on how to manage the patient and do it all of course on a personalized level. But this is still in days to come and part of our pipeline.