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On your marks, get set… start-up!

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by Cancer Research UK | Research Feature

13 August 2021

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Enabling you to translate your work into a product to improve the lives of cancer patients is a key part of how we can meet our ambition for 3 out of 4 patients diagnosed with cancer to survive the disease by 2034.

However, being a great researcher doesn’t necessarily arm you with the right skills or connections to take on the challenges of forming a company. This is why we have a strong offering of programmes to develop and nurture an entrepreneurial culture amongst researchers.

One such programme, a partnership with Deep Science Ventures (DSV), has resulted in three new companies. The programme was based on DSV’s approach of harnessing the opportunities of cross-disciplinary research to solve complex scientific problems. After an intense 12-month collaboration to develop their ideas and harness the business expertise of DSV, the successful ventures have each received pre-seed capital to generate proof of concept data for their idea.

During the partnership we worked closely with DSV to define the challenges, build the founding teams, and assess the potential approaches that emerged. CRUK and DSV will continue to contribute expertise to each company and CRUK’s Therapeutic Discovery Laboratories will offer resource and incubation space to accelerate proof-of-concept studies.

Tackling tumour microenviroments with bacteria

Pedro Correa de Sampaio, CEO of Neobe Therapeutics

For a long time, it’s been my conviction that targeting the tumour microenvironment was the key to tackling cancer. It made sense to me to disrupt the local infrastructure of tumours, circumventing the Darwinian inevitability of genetically unstable cancer cells developing drug resistance mechanisms.

The rise of immunotherapy has shown the impact that a less ‘cancer cell-centric’ approach could have on the lives of patients. However, strategies targeting other aspects of the microenvironment weren’t as successful in making it to the clinic. Even immunotherapies seem to only benefit a subset of patients. Innovative approaches are sorely needed.

“Neither of us had experience starting a company, so support from DSV was instrumental in getting us off the ground fast.”

At Deep Science Ventures, I was fortunate to have an opportunity to address this. With the support of Cancer Research UK (CRUK), I could employ a first principles approach to identify the constraints to a successful microenvironment targeting approach. The need to find a way to locally remodel the microenvironment in response to tumour conditions without affecting healthy tissue became apparent. The solution soon presented itself to us – genetically engineered tumour-colonising bacteria.

This initial idea was the seed for a new start-up, which ended up becoming Neobe Therapeutics. As a cancer biologist I fully believed in this strategy. However, I had no knowledge of bacterial engineering, especially in a therapeutic setting. Enter Annelise Soulier. As a former Principal Scientist at Prokarium, Annelise had significant experience developing new bacterial therapies to multiple disease indications. Her drive to disrupt the cancer field through engineering new strains of bacteria pushed our scientific plan further, and together we co-founded Neobe.

Neither of us had experience starting a company, so support from DSV was instrumental in getting us off the ground fast. We quickly developed essential new skills to be able to run a business – from writing a business plan and maintaining a budget, to estimating market size and planning the right commercialisation strategy. With a modest budget we managed to establish a laboratory in west London and are currently working on our first product.

As scientists, we are continuously trained on problem solving. We know how to design innovative solutions and put them into practice. We know how to communicate our research effectively. We constantly learn new methodologies and work in multidisciplinary teams. Every day we use these core skills needed to run a company. However, this doesn’t mean the road to entrepreneurship is easy; we are just getting started and we know there is a long road of IP and fundraising ahead of us. But we believe in this project and we know that through innovation, we can make a real difference to the lives of cancer patients.

Neobe Therapeutics Ltd will engineer bacteria to create a new therapy that targets tumours and actively breaks down the physical barriers of the tumour microenvironment, allowing improved penetration of drugs and immune cells to combat the cancer.

Pedro completed his PhD at Cancer Research UK’s Cambridge Institute before pursuing post-doctoral research in collaboration with Nobel laureate James Allison.

CSO Annelise Soulier joins from Prokarium, bringing deep bacterial engineering expertise.


Cancer as an evolutionary disease

Alex Gutteridge, CSO and co-founder of Enedra

The idea behind Enedra is to understand cancer as an evolutionary disease.

The genetic and epigenetic make-up of tumours evolve in response to the body and to drugs. By understanding this evolutionary process, we think we can find how to target cancer when it is most vulnerable. Enedra means ‘ambush’ in ancient Greek, which sums up the idea: Find where cancer evolves to, and then trap and attack it there.

The research of my co-founder, and the CEO of Enedra, Andreas Ballis, was based on why cancer treatments are still so hard to develop. The project with CRUK and DSV, was to found a start-up to address this challenge. As his work began to focus in on tumour evolution, he realised he needed a co-founder with a computational background. Tracking evolution, of course, means dealing with large amounts of genetic and epigenetic data, so computational biology and bioinformatics are at the heart of Enedra’s approach.

I was introduced to Andreas through our professional networks. They knew I had a background in applying computational biology in the pharma industry and was interested in entrepreneurship, so they matched me with the profile they knew Andreas was looking for. This part of my story is an obvious example of how important professional networks can be.

“On bad days, when you doubt yourself, it can feel incredibly scary, but on good days it’s exhilarating.”

The personal decision to leave the relative stability of big pharma and co-found Enedra wasn’t easy. I had worked in industry for just over a decade and before that I did post-docs in Cambridge and Japan. Working in academia and big pharma still means dealing with lots of change and uncertainty, but there’s always a feeling of a safety net simply because of the size and resources of the organisations you’re in. What I’ve found is that at a start-up, you’re very aware that the safety net has dropped away. On bad days, when you doubt yourself, it can feel incredibly scary, but on good days it’s exhilarating.

The most fulfilling part of working in science for me is going through the process of developing an idea into a project and then bringing a team together to deliver on that. Working in academia and big pharma gives you the chance to go through that process, but working for a start-up boils it down to its essence. ‘Publish or perish’ and the politics of working in a big pharma R&D organisation don’t matter anymore – all that matters is the project and a big part of entrepreneurship for me is enjoying that single-minded focus.

Enedra Therapeutics Ltd will identify new targets for synthetic lethality which overcome the current problems of modest response rates and rapid resistance in patients. Synthetic lethality is the phenomenon where simultaneous perturbation of two genes leads to tumour cell death. Therapeutic approaches already take advantage of this as an existing gene aberration in tumours, but Enedra will extend the concept using a computational platform that defines inescapable cancer phenotypes instead of single gene mutations, and the unique vulnerabilities that are conferred upon tumours as a result.

Alex previously headed bioinformatics and computational biology functions at Lonza and GSK.

CEO Andreas Ballis has previous founder experience as CEO of two biotech companies.

Going viral on cancer

Chris Ulman, CEO and Antonio Postigo, CSO of Stratosvir

I joined DSV, excited by the prospect of working in partnership with CRUK to bring new ideas to treat solid tumours.

From my recent experience in gene delivery to treat cancer, I know the potential of using viruses as tumour-homing delivery systems. Viruses are exquisite vehicles for delivering nucleic acid into cells and some have a natural tropism for cancer cells. Their polyvalent effects mean they can stimulate both the innate and adaptive immune responses against tumours. This is exciting and suggests a real rationale for their use in cancer therapy.

With the backing of DSV, we have identified key areas in which to create the next generation of vectors so that viral immunotherapy can be more effective and used more widely in cancer therapy.

“The emphasis on teamwork in biotech is enormously motivating. It rewards people with this outlook in a way that the traditional academic path may not.”

Knowing the devastation that cancer wreaks on patients was a key driver for me to apply my skills in industry.

Having previously been part of project teams that translated products from the bench to the clinic, I am excited to develop Stratosvir’s vision to improve patient outcomes. What I would say to current postdocs and students is that the emphasis on teamwork in biotech is enormously motivating. It rewards people with this outlook in a way that the traditional academic path may not.

I am truly fascinated by the process of starting a company from scratch – and to make that happen effectively I am delighted to have joined forces with Chris, an experienced biotech executive. DSV has given us their extensive in-house support to start Stratosvir’s journey.

Stratosvir Ltd will develop improved oncolytic viruses engineered to allow systemic delivery by avoiding immune clearance. Destruction of therapeutic viruses by the patient’s immune system is one of the key reasons that such therapies have largely disappointed in trials to date, despite having potential to be the ideal weapons to treat solid tumours.

Chris has industry experience having served as CSO at Isogenica and at Gendaq.

Antonio headed Molecular Virology at PsiOxus, having also undertaken 10 years of post-doctoral research with Cancer Research UK at the London Research Institute and The Crick Institute.


Explore all of our entrepreneurial programmes

Read the news story on our collaboration with DSV here