Every time the veterinarian removed the cancerous tumor from the back of “BW,’’ a sweet-faced, well-loved, white cat, the malignancy would return two or three weeks later.
The cat’s owner opted to try a revolutionary veterinary cancer treatment, called VetiVax, which triggers the animal’s immune system to fight the disease. The VetiVax treatment modified the traditional tumor behavior. The cancer did recur, but required minor revision surgery and “BW’’ has been healthy for 2½ years.
UConn alumna Ashley Kalinauskas is the CEO of Torigen Pharmaceuticals, the Farmington, Connecticut-based company that creates the new treatment. She is currently marketing it to veterinarians and is anticipating rapid growth for her startup.
“When I meet people whose family pets have been diagnosed with cancer, they are heartbroken,’’ Kalinauskas said. “They want the very best for their pet. But few people can afford to pay upwards of $5,000 for chemotherapy and radiation.’’
Each year over 8 million dogs and cats are diagnosed with cancer. Almost half of all dogs and cats over age 10 will die of one form of the disease.
Until now, the standard treatment was chemotherapy and radiation, which are both expensive and could potentially have negative side effects. Vetivax uses the animal’s own tumor and tumor-associated antigens to stimulate the pet’s immune system to fight the disease. The personalized treatment, a series of injections, costs about $1,200.
“For both pet owners and veterinarians, VetiVax is another tool in the toolbox,’’ she said. “It provides hope to have an affordable treatment option with limited side effects. The reaction from veterinarians has been very positive.’’
“Our end goal is extending the survival time for these animals and achieving remission,’’ Kalinauskas said. To date, more than 150 animals have been treated with 60 percent exceeding expected survival benchmarks.
The novel approach to treatment of cancer in pets has resulted in a successful preliminary response in 11 types of cancer. Fewer than 3 percent of the animals experienced side effects, and most were minor, including mild lethargy, irritation, and redness at the injection site.
Kalinauskas earned a bachelor’s degree in pathobiology and veterinary sciences at UConn, and then went to the University of Notre Dame for graduate degrees in science and business. There, she won second place in the Notre Dame McCloskey Business Plan Competition alongside her professor and inventor of this technology, veterinarian Mark Suckow. The business plan competition inspired the team to launch Torigen and VetiVax and bring them to the marketplace.
“Connecticut is my home and I wanted to return here,’’ she said. Through the UConn Technology Incubation Program (TIP), she has dedicated laboratory space, access to unique research and development facilities, and advice from business experts and investors that can help grow the company.
“We recently received $100,000 from the UConn Innovation Fund, and additional funding from Connecticut Innovations and private investors,’’ she said. “The funding from UConn is allowing me to collect and present additional clinical data to veterinarians.’’
“Veterinarians are ‘scientific skeptics’ and want to see evidence of results. When I show them what we’ve accomplished, they are very excited,’’ Kalinauskas said. “Immunotherapy is the future of cancer medicine, not only for animals but for humans as well.’’