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A small Tampa company is working on a big breakthrough: a cancer vaccine

Dr. Michael Lawman and Dr. Patricia Lawman founded their company Morphogenesis in 1995. The start-up took time to develop and gain funding, and today is holding clinical trials for what the Lawmans say could be a cancer vaccine. [ANGELIQUE HERRING | Times]
Published Aug. 12

Click here to read this story in Spanish.

TAMPA — Tampa scientists Michael and Patricia Lawman imagine a day when cancer could be treated with a single needle prick and no debilitating side effects. And they see it coming sooner rather than later.

The husband-and-wife team operates a company called Morphogenesis, which focuses on gene and cell therapy research and development. Together they developed a "cancer vaccine," which is undergoing clinical trials at Tampa's Moffitt Cancer Center and soon at other locations across the country.

The vaccine, called ImmuneFx, helps train the immune system to identify and destroy cancerous tumor cells. To do that, it forces those cells to come out of hiding.

Cancer cells mutate and change so fast, it can be difficult for the immune system to spot them, Patricia Lawman, 65, said. So the vaccine uses cell and gene therapy to force those cells to express a specific bacterial antigen on their surface, making them easy for the immune system to identify.

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This way, a patient's immune system can fight off cancer cells on its own, without the help of radiation, chemotherapy or other treatments — and without the harmful side effects that come with them.

"When we think of vaccines, we think of the preventative ones we get, like the flu shot, which works in a way to prevent us from getting sick," Lawman said. "What we've developed is a therapeutic vaccine."

Immunotherapy is a broad term to describe a growing and game-changing cancer treatment that uses the immune system to fight infections and diseases. Moffitt and Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital administer a version of it called Chimeric Antigen Receptor Therapy to patients suffering from leukemia, lymphoma and certain other blood or bone cancers. Known as CAR-T cell therapy, it uses white blood cells from the patient's immune system and re-engineers them in a lab to target and wipe out cancer cells.

"CAR-T requires work in a lab, and doesn't necessary catch every cancer cell," Lawman said. "They target as many as possible, but they program which cells to go after."

In contrast, she said, "the vaccine forces every tumor cell to present the same protein, which is visible to the immune system."

After years of lab work, Morphogenesis began testing the vaccine on companion animals with veterinary partners. About 430 cats, dogs and horses diagnosed with naturally occurring cancers were given the vaccine and tracked over time.

The results showed it was safe. And during a study performed on horses, 77 percent of them showed a significant reduction in tumors.

ImmuneFx now is being tested in clinical trials on humans with cutaneous melanoma, one of the most common types of skin cancer. But Lawman said she's confident the vaccine could be used in the future to treat a variety of cancers that present tumors, if not all of them.

"We think the body can do everything better than we can come up with," Lawman said. "So we try not to mess with it."

Morphogenesis began in 1995 after the Lawmans left the Walt Disney Memorial Cancer Institute to launch their start-up in a business incubator program at the University of Florida. But starting a life science business in Florida was easier said than done. The couple lived in a family member's converted garage on an alligator farm for a period of time as they struggled to find funding for their treatments.

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But the goal has always been the same — to discover ways to use the body's own ability to fight chronic disease. Now Morphogenesis operates out of a quiet office park in Tampa, close enough to Busch Gardens to hear roller coasters from the parking lot.

Lawman said they picked the location to be close to the University of South Florida and Moffitt. Inside the building, Morphogenesis has a large lab, with equipment and sterilized space closed off by full-pane glass walls.

Morphogenesis has raised over $27 million in investor funding for research related to the vaccine, and is closing in on another round of nearly $45 million. Among the financial backers is Dr. Kiran Patel, a well-known doctor, businessman and philanthropist in the Tampa Bay area.

ImmuneFx is expected to move onto a second phase of clinical trials next year, when it will be administered to a larger group of patients at three test sites, including Moffitt. This trial will also test how the vaccine works in conjunction with another cancer therapy.

It's still too early in the federal regulation process to tell when the vaccine might be available on a larger scale, Lawman said.

"It takes years to accumulate this information," she said, "and we have to find funding along the way to keep it going."

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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