Dr Boreham’s Crucible: Amplia Therapeutics

Small Caps | Jun 05 2024

By Tim Boreham, Editor, The New Criterion

ASX code: ((ATX))

Market cap: $17.93m

Shares on issue: 271,609,233

Chief executive officer: Dr Chris Burns (co-founder)

Board: Dr Warwick Tong (chair), Dr Burns, Dr Robert Peach, Jane Bell

Financials (March quarter 2024): receipts nil, cash outflows -$554,000, cash balance $3.385m*, quarters of available funding 2.5

Identifiable major shareholders: Platinum Investment Management 14.54%, Blueflag Holdings 6.94%, Pengana Capital 5.6%, Acorn Capital 5.19%.

**Ahead of $4.27m raised in rights offer

In its pursuit of a cancer drug for pancreatic cancer and possibly other indications including ovarian cancer, Amplia Therapeutics has history on its side given the involvement of its leading figures in a US-approved drug for blood cancer.

The therapy in question, Ojjaara (momelotinib) is a so-called janus kinase (JAK) inhibitor drug to treat myelofibrosis, developed by the formerly ASX-listed Cytopia.

The lead inventors were Melbourne based scientist and current Amplia CEO, Dr Chris Burns and Cytopia founder Prof Andrew Wilks.

In a typical case of ownership pass-the-parcel, Cytopia was sold to Canada’s YM Biosciences for $14m, the drug was acquired by Gilead for US$510m ($770m) and then by Sierra Oncology (for a song).

Glaxosmithkline then acquired the drug through its 2022 purchase of Sierra for US$1.9bn - the highest amount ever paid for an Australian-developed therapy.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) green-lighted the treatment last year – a rare event for an Australian-developed drug.

“It was a very interesting time,” Dr Burns says.

Can history repeat itself?

Amplia certainly can’t be accused of targeting the low-hanging fruit, in that pancreatic and ovarian cancers are notoriously hard to detect and to treat.

Amplia’s lead compound, AMP945, targets fibrosis: the formation of excessive fibrous connective tissues that can impair the function of organs including the lungs, liver, heart and kidneys.

The company has orphan indication for both pancreatic cancer and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis - another hard-to-treat condition.

Making Amplia Great Again

Amplia has an - er - interesting history.

In early 2018, the company was known as Innate Immunotherapeutics and it famously had just come a cropper with a phase II multiple sclerosis trial.

There’s even a Trumpian tinge to Amplia’s history, in that former Innate director and major shareholder Chris Collins was Donald Trump’s congressional liaison.

If convicted criminal Trump is jailed – admittedly unlikely - he knows who to consult about life in the clink: Mr Collins was sentenced to 26 months’ jail after pleading guilty to tipping-off his son that the MS trial was less than tickety-boo.

(Eventually, he was pardoned by Trump during his presidency).

But not to worry. After considerable soul-searching the company acquired the privately owned Amplia and its FAK inhibitor program (more on FAKs later).

Amplia was owned by parties including the now legendary Dr Chris Behrenbruch, Dr Chris Burns and Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre researcher Dr Mark Devlin (now an Amplia scientific adviser).

Initially, the program was the work of the Melbourne based, Federal Government-funded Cancer Therapeutics Cooperative Research Centre.

While developed here, the rights resided with Cancer Research UK. But the organisation wasn’t actively developing it, so Doctors Burns and Behrenbruch negotiated to re-claim the tech.

Dr Burns took over from Dr John Lambert as CEO in December 2022. Dr John had replaced Simon Wilkinson in June 2019.

Dr Burns has 30 years in drug discovery and development, including CEO positions at public and private companies.

Along the way, Dr Behrenbruch resigned from Amplia’s board in 2020 to focus on Telix Pharmaceuticals ((TLX)) but remains a supportive Amplia holder with a 1.5% stake.

Innate changed its name to Amplia shortly thereafter and bunkered down to focus on its current programs.

What the heck is FAK all about?

Amplia’s lead compound AMP945 (narmafotinib) is a focal adhesion kinase (FAK) inhibitor.

Most cancer treatments are designed to attack tumors directly by either poisoning them, or starving them of nutrients. This is fine when it works, but tumors are cunning in that they tend to mount a defensive response which blunts the effect of many cancer drugs.

It is hoped AMP945 will suppress a bodily agent suspected of aiding and abetting the spread of tumors and fostering fibrosis.

AMP945 removes the protective shields, rendering the tumors more responsive to chemotherapy.

AMP945 was discovered at the former Cancer Therapeutics Cooperative Research Centre, with the help of scientists from Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Services and Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, St Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research, the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research and the CSIRO.

A great team effort all round, guys and gals!

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