Exclusive Q&A with Punit Dhillon, CEO of OncoSec Medical, on Developing Innovative Cancer Treatments
Being cutting-edge by introducing new tech advances is great, but it’s not the only way to go in entrepreneurship. Just ask the 34-year-old Punit Dhillon.
Punit Dhillon launched OncoSec Medical in 2011, leveraging “dead technology” to develop innovative medical treatments that harness the body’s immune system to detect and fight cancer. The revolutionary breakthrough has given hope to cancer patients and helped the company to grow from $20 to $100 million in less than 4 years. In this Q&A, I talked with Punit about his innovation and entrepreneurship in general.
Ivan Widjaya (Q): Hi, Punit! Can you please tell our readers a bit about yourself?
Punit Dhillon (A): Hi! Thanks for this great opportunity. I’m the Co-Founder and CEO of OncoSec Medical, Inc., a San Diego-based biotechnology company pioneering new technologies to stimulate the body’s immune system to target and attack cancer. Through our proprietary technology, we aim to deliver safer and more effective cancer treatments that can provide long-term benefits for patients.
Prior to co-founding OncoSec, I was Vice President of Finance and Operations at Inovio Pharmaceuticals, Inc. and raised over $160 million through multiple financings and several licensing deals including early stage deals with Merck and Wyeth. My management experience spans corporate finance, M&A, integration, successful in-licensing of key intellectual property, strategy implementation, corporate transactions and collaborations with leading universities and working with several key opinion leaders across the globe.
As a serial entrepreneur, I place great value on helping future leaders overcome challenges through mentorship and education. I’m the Co-Founder of Young Entrepreneurship Leadership Launchpad (YELL), a nonprofit organization that provides leadership experience and a credited curriculum for high school students in business and entrepreneurship. I’m also the Founder of BeCancerPositive.org, an online community for those affected by cancer. The community encourages people to maintain a positive state of mind while living with cancer and share their stories as a way to connect and inspire hope for others.
Q: You started an innovative company, OncoSec Medical – please share with us the background story.
A: In 2011, I went on to start my own company, OncoSec Medical, to develop innovative cancer treatments in the field of cancer immunotherapy, which has been heralded as a revolutionary approach to cancer care. Cancer immunotherapy is an emerging field in the cancer treatment paradigm, and analysts believe immunotherapy will form the backbone of 60% of all cancer treatment plans in the developed world in the next 10 years.
In addition to seeing the market potential that cancer immunotherapy had to offer, I also recognized the human aspect of such a treatment, having witnessed the difficult emotional and physical side effects chemotherapy had on a close friend during her battle with cancer. I was, and continue to be, motivated by the opportunity to develop a less invasive and non-debilitating alternative to chemotherapy that can enable cancer patients to maintain their quality of life.
There have been several roadblocks along the way, including almost running out of capital in the first 12 months of doors opening. We persevered and built a strong clinical pipeline starting from scratch to four robust programs in Phase II clinical trials and 50 employees. OncoSec is currently investigating our proprietary technology for treatment of metastatic melanoma, head and neck cancer, and triple negative breast cancer. Of note, the company’s lead program in metastatic melanoma is in a Phase II combination clinical trial with Merck’s anti-PD-1 cancer therapy, KEYTRUDA. Here is a link to our clinical programs and additional details: http://oncosec.com/clinical-pipeline/.
Q: You are known for leveraging ‘dead technology’ to develop treatments to detect and fight cancer – can you explain more about it?
A: Prior to founding OncoSec, I saw an untapped opportunity to develop a novel treatment to help the body’s immune system fight cancer using intratumoral immunotherapy. I was able to take a technology that was failing in its initial clinical trials, and see the potential for the platform to work in a different condition: cancer. In my previous role, the technology was not seen as a priority for the company, and they decided to put the product on hold instead of reviving it.
Knowing the technology could provide benefits to cancer patients, I secured the rights to the intellectual property and left my previous job along with my sole source of income to start OncoSec. OncoSec was founded on the belief that we could transform what was once considered a “dead” technology into a propriety immunotherapy platform to target and eliminate cancerous cells.
This discovery has led the way to the development of OncoSec’s core immunotherapy technology, ImmunoPulse. This technology hinges on the delivery of DNA-based therapeutics by a process called electroporation, which involves the use of electrical pulses to increase the permeability of the cell membrane, permitting the DNA to enter the cells.
Q: What’s the future for your line of business and tech?
A: Our intratumoral immunotherapies continue to show promising preliminary efficacy and safety data from our clinical trials. These results allow us to explore the broad applications of our ImmunoPulse technology and pursue combination therapies that may address a great unmet medical need in oncology: anti-PD-1 non-responders.
The scientific community is beginning to realize the importance of combining immunotherapies to help improve outcomes and safety among patients. One class of immunotherapies that is driving potential market opportunity is checkpoint inhibitors, such as anti-PD-1 treatments. These drugs help prevent cancer cells from evading the body’s immune system. However, the majority of patients with solid tumors who have been treated with anti-PD-1/PD-L1 therapies do not respond to treatment.
This is where we believe OncoSec’s technology will play a significant role in the immunotherapy landscape. OncoSec is one of the few companies taking the fight directly to the tumor. We believe that by combining our technology with anti-PD-1 treatments, we can enhance response to anti-PD-1 and other immune checkpoint therapies, and convert anti-PD-1 non-responders to responders. OncoSec with investigators at the University of California, San Francisco are currently initiating a Phase II clinical trial evaluating the combination of ImmunoPulse™ IL-12 and Merck’s anti-PD-1 drug, KEYTRUDA® in patients with metastatic melanoma. Combinations such as these will be the mainstay in immunotherapy.
We look forward to announcing data from our melanoma, head and neck, and triple negative breast cancer studies and working with academic and industry partners to further advance our research. Data from these trials will be important value building milestones for the company, and hopefully bring us one step closer to commercialization.
We also continue to expand our R&D pipeline and investigate new therapeutic candidates and DNA constructs. We aim to develop a technology that will be able to reach virtually any type of tumor within the body and be utilized in every oncology clinic. By working towards these goals, we hope to continue to advance our innovative technologies for the benefit of patients everywhere and drive shareholder value.
Q: A controversial question: Allegedly, the cure for cancer has been (long) found, but as it has little economical value, big companies are reluctant in making the treatment available for the masses. What’s your view on this?
A: Cancer is a complex disease that presents in many types. The opportunity with immunotherapy is that it will likely form the backbone of 60% of all cancer management regimes in the world given likely paradigm changes in overall survival improvements in responsive patients – so, we are finally getting closer to the potential of a “cure.” This represents a potential revenue opportunity for the industry in excess of $35 billion by 2023. This is a staggering number and a large economic driver that would definitely be enough of a motivator to get large pharma to develop a potential “cure” for cancer that is available to the masses.
Q: Lastly: Any entrepreneurship tips to share with our readers?
A: “Fail Fast” – At OncoSec, we have always had the discipline to make the bold decision to pivot and adjust when a project or program is not working the way it was envisioned. The idea, of “fail-early, fail-often, fail-forward” is similar to the popular Silicon Valley slogan regarding rapid iteration.
“Reinvent” – The overall life sciences sector has advanced very fast and I do not believe in re-inventing the wheel. I believe it is prudent to keep evolving technology and pushing science forward to devise adaptations based on the scientific evidence available.
“Attitude” – Part of success is contributed to mindset – if you think you can you do it, there is a high likelihood you will do it! I believe in setting big goals because they set purpose and direction and keep you in check. We must continue to go out of our way to stretch our imagination and push ourselves forward.
Many thanks, Punit, for your time!