The immuno-oncology biotech has two drug candidates in clinical study and two others in preparation. All come from the Gosselies laboratories and, for the CEO, this will not change, even if he himself now lives in Boston and the funding is mainly American.
The story began just 10 years ago, on July 9, 2012. “That day, I settled here in Gosselies, in the biotech incubator, with a table, a chair and a wifi connection”, recalls Michel Detheux, CEO and co-founder of iTeos. In addition to the furniture, there was above all the fruit of years of research from the Ludwig Institute and the Duve Institute (UCLouvain), with advances in immuno-oncology sufficiently convincing to allow the spin-off to raise three million euros from the outset, in addition to the six million in regional research aid. By Belgian standards, this is a comfortable introduction.
The story began just 10 years ago, on July 9, 2012. “That day, I settled here in Gosselies, in the biotech incubator, with a table, a chair and a wifi connection”, recalls Michel Detheux, CEO and co-founder of iTeos. In addition to the furniture, there was above all the fruit of years of research from the Ludwig Institute and the Duve Institute (UCLouvain), with advances in immuno-oncology sufficiently convincing to allow the spin-off to raise three million euros from the outset, in addition to the six million in regional research aid. By Belgian standards, this is a comfortable introduction. Ten years later, iTeos is listed on the Nasdaq and employs 120 people, including twenty in Boston (Massachusetts), where its CEO now lives. However, most of the workforce remains based in Gosselies, where all of the company’s scientific work is carried out. “This choice is not sentimental but quite rational, assures Michel Detheux. We have excellent scientists in Belgium. Thanks to research aid, they cost less than American scientists and they are much more faithful to the world. company. We have barely 2% departures over the year.” The tax system for patents completes the panoply of the attractiveness of Belgian research. Nevertheless, iTeos has taken on American colours, targeting Boston and the Nasdaq rather than Euronext for its IPO. “Could we have developed the company without American investors? Perhaps, but everything would have been much slower, believes Michel Detheux. On Euronext, we would have raised 30 to 50 million. There, we collected 325 million in four months We combine the best of both worlds: American financial power and Belgian scientific excellence.” Remember that iTeos carried out its IPO in the summer of 2020, when half the planet was living in confinement. These circumstances did not prevent the company from registering requests for three billion dollars, ie 20 times the amount mentioned in the IPO form (150 million). There are therefore a lot of people ready to bet on these cancer treatments in development in Gosselies. Let us dwell on these treatments. In the iTeos laboratories, we are working on molecules that will help our immune system to defend itself against cancer cells. These have the particularity of setting up mechanisms that neutralize our defences, thus allowing the disease to proliferate. Immuno-oncology targets these mechanisms, so that the immune system can fully play its role. “The big advantage of immuno-oncology is that it helps the body to be more powerful against the disease, unlike chemotherapy which can be very aggressive, adds the CEO of iTeos. control recurrences more effectively. Our goal is to somehow transform cancer into a chronic disease, with which the patient retains a sufficient quality of life.” One of the difficulties of this approach is that these mechanisms which can slow down or block our immune system, there are hundreds of them. “We must therefore first understand what is happening in the tumor environment to identify the targets that will have the most beneficial effects for the patient,” says Michel Detheux. ITeos currently has two products in clinical development. They have passed phase I (non-dangerousness and dosage) and are now in phase II (assessment of the benefit compared to existing treatments). There is still phase III (verifying the improvement in survival and in the patient’s state of health compared to reference treatments) before marketing, which the company sees for four to five years. The two products in the clinical phase are, on the one hand, EOS-850, a small molecule which targets the A2A receptor and is said to be particularly effective against solid cancers; and on the other hand, EOS-448, a monoclonal antibody (a much larger molecule) which targets the Tigit receptor. The anti-Tigit strategy is considered one of the most promising in immuno-oncology. This also prompted GSK to spend $625 million to conclude a partnership with iTeos last year for the development and marketing of the EOS-448. This amount can still be inflated with additional payments based on sales, which could then bring the deal to two billion dollars! But beware, in biotechnologies, everything can sometimes be brutally called into question. The Swiss laboratory Roche has just published disappointing results concerning an antibody targeting the same Tigit in a phase III clinical study. Does this call into question all the hopes placed in anti-Tigit molecules? “No, because our approach is different and our molecule has shown, in pre-clinical and in phase I, superior beneficial effects, replies Michel Detheux. The data from the Roche study will constitute an appreciable source for continuing the differentiation of our candidate medicine. When the most important competitor encounters a difficulty, it can be an opportunity for a company like ours.” In the Gosselies laboratories, we are of course working on other products. A third immuno-oncology treatment should be in the clinical phase next year and the fourth in two years. “These are all Belgian inventions, insists the CEO of iTeos. We subcontract all over the world, we go to find the best players where they are, but the science is done here in Gosselies. We have built an infrastructure of 120 people and developed world-class expertise. It is now important to leverage this expertise in other programs, expand our product portfolio and diversify our risk profile. This is what will allow us to build the strength business, which we will need in four or five years.” If he wants to expand the company’s portfolio, the founder of iTeos – holder of a bio-engineering degree (UCLouvain) and a business certificate (Solvay) – nevertheless wishes to remain in the field of ‘oncology. “I want to make iTeos an oncology powerhouse, he concludes. A world-class player that develops innovative drugs that will have a positive impact on the quality of life of patients suffering from cancer.”