Benitec Biopharma on Gene-Silencing


Transcription of Finance News Network Interview with Benitec Biopharma Limited (ASX:BLT) CBO, Carl Stubbings

John Treadgold: Benitec Biopharma Limited (ASX:BLT) is a biotechnology company working on gene silencing therapies for a range of debilitating diseases, and its clinical trials for Hepatitis C has been approved for phase 1-2 in the US. I’m John Treadgold and joining me today at the ASX Investor Series in Sydney is the Company’s Chief Business Officer, Carl Stubbings.  Carl welcome.

Carl Stubbings: Thank you very much John, I appreciate the invitation.

John Treadgold: Benitec Biopharma is a dominant player in gene silencing. For the lay person, how does gene silencing work and what are the key applications?

Carl Stubbings: Gene silencing is a unique almost exquisite way that the body uses to turn genes off that it doesn’t need. Benitec effectively makes use of this particular process, by selecting different diseases for which there is a particular gene that’s known and using the technology, to actually shut that gene down and solve the problem and cure the disease.

John Treadgold: And what sets your Company apart from others in the field?

Carl Stubbings: The actual technology came out of a research at the CSIRO in Australia. We call it DNA-directed RNA interference and it’s a form of what’s called, RNA interference. This is effectively the gene silencing if you like. The difference between how Benitec approaches this and some of the other companies is that the others use, have to continually administer the effective medicine if you like. It’s called short interfering RNA; we don’t need to worry too much about what that actually is. The point is that it is the thing that actually turns the particular gene off.

In the other companies they have to keep administering that material, because the cell consumes it in turning the gene off. Benitec’s approach is to use a DNA construct, which is like an instruction to the cell. So it tells the cell to manufacture something similar to this siRNA that I mentioned, it moves into the same pathway, shuts the gene off, but does it for the life of the cells. So you don’t have to keep readministering the particular treatment.

John Treadgold: Your licensing partner Calimmune in the US has seen some success in clinical trials disrupting genes associated with HIV. What’s the progress there?

Carl Stubbings: Very, very exciting work that Calimmune is undertaking. Their trial is based around using ddRNAi in a stem cell format. So that effectively what they’re doing is repopulating the immune cells in a patient who’s got HIV, to replicate a scenario that you see in about one per cent of the European population, where these people lack a particular receptor on their lymphocytes. It’s that receptor that the HIV virus binds to. If it’s not there, the virus can’t bind to it. So by rebuilding an immune system using ddRNAi to suppress that particular gene, we’re able to build a population of immune cells in a patient without it. And therefore, make it impossible for the virus to replicate.

John Treadgold: Benitec receives licensing fees for its technology. Have any of these made it to the trial stage, and how many new applications do you have in the pipeline?

Carl Stubbings: So from a licensing point of view, apart from Calimmune which is now in clinical trials, we have another three indications with other companies. They range from various forms of cancer through to Huntingtons disease and an orphan indication for an ocular disease. So none of those yet have hit clinical trial phase, so we get a small annual licence fee for those. The real money occurs at sort of back end, when they start to move into and through the clinic.

John Treadgold: What is the Company’s cash position and financial forecast for the year ahead?

Carl Stubbings: It’s a very strong position. In February this year, Benitec raised over $31,500 million in the United States with US institutional healthcare funds. This has positioned us very strongly and uncharacteristically I might say, for Australian biotech companies. We have sufficient funds now to take our lead program TT-034, which is the treatment you mentioned for Hepatitis C, through to the conclusion of phase 2 where if we have very strong positive clinical data, the Company’s going to have a significant value inflection point. Importantly it’ll also help us take a couple of our other key programs through, up towards the clinic. And they are programs that include a treatment for Hepatitis B, which leverages the Hepatitis C program, a treatment for non-small cell lung cancer eliminating chemotherapy resistance and finally, a treatment for age-related Macular Degeneration.

John Treadgold: They sound like some good long term goals. Are there any other things on the horizon that are most interesting?

Carl Stubbings: It’s interesting you should ask that. The way the platform, which is what we call the ddRNAi technologies position is effectively it could work on any number of different diseases, if you can isolate the gene that’s responsible for the problem. So we’re in early stage conversations with a number of organisations about identifying new targets that might be applicable for ddRNAi.  The company is well funded, we’ve got at least one of our own programs in the clinic, one of our licensees has a program in the clinic. I think we are well positioned and I have to tell you at the moment, it’s a very, very exciting time.

John Treadgold: Carl Stubbings, thank you for the update from Benitec Biopharma.

Carl Stubbings: Thank you very much.