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Innovative cancer spinouts: 3 new projects get green light

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by Cancer Research UK | News

13 August 2021

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Cancer Research UK has helped create 3 new spinout companies that are safely engineering viruses to seek and destroy cancer cells and bacteria to break down the physical defences of tumours.

In 2019, Cancer Research UK partnered with Deep Science Ventures (DSV), as part of our Entrepreneurial Programme, to support scientists to nurture their ideas for new cancer therapies into companies.

They have supported the formation and financing of 3 spinout companies that are focussing on promising areas in cancer therapy: viral immunotherapies, bringing down barriers in the tumour microenvironment (TME) and synthetic lethality.

We look forward to seeing how these companies push forward their research, which could one day benefit people living with cancer.

– Tony Hickson, chief business officer at Cancer Research UK

Viral immunotherapies

The spinout Stratosvir Ltd is developing viral immunotherapies to target cancer.

The innovative approach involves engineering viruses to infect cancer cells and multiply rapidly so that they burst from the cell to kill it from the inside out.

The contents of the cell, released during the rupture, then act as ‘red flags’ which trigger the immune system and cause it to spring into action against any remaining cancer cells.

As part of their research, the team aim to tackle one of the major challenges of this approach – getting the virus into cancer cells whilst leaving healthy cells alone.

Currently, viral immunotherapies are often recognised by the body’s immune system and are destroyed before they can infect the cancer cell.

Stratosvir aims to find a way to engineer these viruses to deliver them ‘safely’ to the cancer cells, avoiding immune detection on the way into the cell, only raising the alarm to immune cells once the cell has burst open.

Tumour microenvironment

Neobe Therapeutics Ltd is focusing on the complex system of cancer cells and immune cells, recruited to work for the cancer, along with proteins and blood vessels, that make up the tumour microenvironment.

This ecosystem is a major constraint to immunotherapy, preventing drugs from reaching their intended target within the tumour.

Neobe Therapeutics Ltd is aiming to harness the potential of a type of bacteria able to colonise tumours.

Engineering the bacteria to seek out tumours and actively break down the physical barriers of the tumour microenvironment.

The team aim to demonstrate that the engineered bacteria can safely remove some of the physical defences within the tumour surroundings, which could ultimately allow drugs and immune cells to penetrate the tumour better.

Synthetic lethality

Enedra Therapeutics Ltd is identifying new targets for a phenomenon known as ‘synthetic lethality’.

The concept relies on identifying pairs of genes that have intertwined roles within cells. If a cancer cell carries a particular faulty gene, the cell may rely on another to keep growing.

But if both genes in this pair are either mutated or ‘switched off’, they can’t function properly and the cell dies.

This idea is already being used to treat some patients. The ovarian cancer drug olaparib (Lynparza) works against cancer cells that carry a faulty BRCA gene and are therefore reliant on another molecule called PARP, which olaparib switches off.

The mutation and deletion of genes is a common part of cancer progression, meaning that there are likely many gene pairs in cancer cells that have one mutated gene that haven’t been identified.

The researchers will use their funding to demonstrate how they can find the other normally functioning half of the pair and mutate or switch off this gene to kill the cancer cell.

Getting off the ground

The pre-seed capital to each spinout will allow each company to generate proof of concept data. It will demonstrate whether their approach will work and serve to increase their chances of attracting further financing.

Tony Hickson, chief business officer at Cancer Research UK, said: “Many of these fledgling ventures are neglected by investors for more advanced projects, meaning that some of the most innovative projects may never even make it out of the gate.

“This is why at Cancer Research UK we support cancer researchers to develop entrepreneurial skills and create spinout companies. We help define the most pressing areas of research and bring together some of the best scientific minds to turn ideas into ventures.”

Kerstin Papenfuss, Associate Director for Therapeutics, Deep Science Ventures, said: “This is the first time that we have collaborated with a research charity. Bringing together DSV’s structured approach to creating life science ventures and the ability to tap into Cancer Research UK’s expert network of researchers has allowed us to create these three high-impact companies.

“We are excited to see how these highly innovative and multidisciplinary companies will grow and transform their respective fields”.

The partnership between Cancer Research UK and DSV was started with the aim to find multidisciplinary solutions to some of the key challenges in cancer therapy, in the form of life science spin out companies.

The 3 new companies are the conclusion of a 12-month collaboration between Cancer Research UK and DSV with the aim to find novel, multidisciplinary solutions to some of the key challenges in cancer therapy.

Find out more about how these 3 spinouts came to life and the people behind them in our research feature.