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January 31, 2022 FOCUS: Health Care

Pet cancer vaccine maker Torigen Pharmaceuticals expanding with new lease, venture funding

HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER Ashley Kalinauskas is the 31-year-old founder and CEO of Torigen Pharmaceuticals, which is developing an animal cancer vaccine called VetiVax.

A member of UConn’s Technology Incubation Program since 2017, Ashley Kalinauskas’ veterinary pharmaceutical startup Torigen Pharmaceuticals Inc. is getting ready to venture out on its own.

The company, which is developing a cancer vaccine for animals, has raised $7.7 million to date, most of it in the last two years, and recently signed a 9,090-square-foot lease in Farmington, at 6 Executive Dr., where it will move its operations by summer.

Kalinauskas, Torigen’s 31-year-old founder and CEO, has seen early promise with an animal cancer vaccine called VetiVax. The vaccine was invented in 2006 at the University of Notre Dame by then-researcher and professor Mark Suckow, who is now Torigen’s chief technology officer.

The VetiVax vaccine, which has eight patents owned by Notre Dame and licensed to Torigen, is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Center of Veterinary Biologics as an experimental therapy with unproven safety and efficacy, but the company is working toward obtaining conditional licensure. It would need to go through clinical trials to get there.

A selling point is that the vaccine is a less-invasive option than chemotherapy. VetiVax has already been used by more than 2,000 animals nationwide, primarily dogs, but also cats, horses, two tigers and a zebra. About 300 veterinary offices administered the vaccine in 2021, Kalinauskas said.

Torigen’s initial capital funding — from investors like Connecticut Innovations, SoGal Ventures and Emerald Development Partners — has gone toward research and development and the goal is to raise additional equity financing to license and develop new, novel therapies to help pets with cancer.

“We are in the process of bringing together some amazing technologies that, we believe, can transform the lives of pets after a devastating cancer diagnosis,” said Kalinauskas, whose business has 25 employees.

Part of the strategy, she added, includes partnering with human oncology companies to license novel therapeutics to the veterinary market.

How it works

Kalinauskas, the owner of a four-year-old mini goldendoodle, said the two most common tumors she sees in dogs are mast cell tumors and soft tissue sarcomas.

Torigen’s vaccine uses an animal’s own tumor cells to create an immunotherapy that trains the immune system to attack cancerous cells. Cells get shipped cold overnight to Torigen and then a vaccine is created and eventually administered once per week for three weeks, for a total of three shots.

Kalinauskas said her team is working on more analysis and research of the vaccine’s effectiveness, but a 2020 preliminary study conducted by Torigen and published by BMC Vet Research, a peer-reviewed publication, found that VetiVax was equivalent to chemotherapy in overall survival rates.

“The vaccine is a game-changer,” said Dr. Steve Leshem of the Veterinary Emergency Center in Canton, a veterinarian for 21 years. “Torigen’s science is sharp and simple. For certain cancers, you can get great results without the use of chemotherapy or radiation.”

Leshem, who charges $1,400 for administering the three vaccine doses, said if there are any downsides it’s the steep cost of the treatment, and some pet owners may have unrealistic expectations of its effectiveness.

Leshem said in many cases pets he’s administered the vaccine to have lived longer than their original prognosis.

Market potential

Kalinauskas said Torigen’s vaccine represents a significant commercial opportunity. There are about 4 million to 6 million dogs and 6 million cats diagnosed with cancer each year and the number of pet owners interested in having more treatment options available is growing, according to a recent analysis by Global Market Insights Inc.

The U.S. pet cancer therapeutic market was a $220.4 million industry in 2020 and is expected to nearly double in growth by 2027, Global Market Insights said. Rising disposable income, increasing adoption of pets, and the growing prevalence of pet diseases have augmented the spending on pet health care, the analysis found.

Amy Hourigan of Cheshire is one of those dog owners who recently sought out cancer care for her pet.

Her 8 ½-year-old Italian mastiff Nyx was diagnosed last summer with anal cancer that spread into the dog’s pelvic cavity.

“I knew it was pretty bad,” Hourigan said. “Because it was a fast-growing tumor, the vet said she’d be dead within a month if we did nothing.”

In early December, Nyx had cancer surgery to remove the tumors. She has also received three doses of the VetiVax vaccine. Hourigan said it’s not yet clear if her pet is cancer-free and it’s hard to quantify the vaccine’s effect.

But, she said, “it’s more of a piece of mind that the aggressive tumor will not grow.”

Kalinauskas said her team — which includes veterinary oncologists, business development and research and development employees — is looking ahead.

Five years from now, she said, “I believe that we will be able to transform translational therapies and provide more dogs and cats access to advanced cancer therapeutics. Our goal is to continue growing our pipeline and making a difference.”

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