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Making a startup out of a scientist

by Tim Bodicoat | Interview

26 April 2023

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Award-winning startup Adendra Therapeutics aims to create a new kind of immunotherapy using novel insights into dendritic cell biology. We spoke to co-founder and CEO Raj Mehta about the road to commercialisation.

Congratulations on winning Cancer Research Horizons’ New Startup of the Year Award. Could you explain what Adendra does and how its technology might be used to help patients?

Raj Mehta is Co-Founder and CEO of Adendra Therapeutics

Adendra is focused on developing treatments for cancer based on our understanding of how our immune system reacts with abnormal cell death. Cells in our body are born and die every second. This is ignored by our immune system and is part of the natural cycle that ensures that our organs remain healthy. However, when our cells undergo necrosis – as a result, for example, of infection or tumour growth – specialised cells of the immune system known as dendritic cells sound the alert. Adendra plans to augment this alarm system as a means towards generating a greater immune response to tumours.

We know that our immune response to cell death can be augmented to treat cancer, and it is becoming apparent that aberrant immune response to necrotic cell death may also be a driver for some autoimmune diseases. For every yin of augmenting our immune response for the treatment of cancer (and infectious diseases), there is sometimes also the yang of dialling it down for treatment of autoimmune diseases. And, in fact, we are also seeking collaboration with other academic researchers to explore the potential for limiting such aberrant immune response for treatment of specific autoimmune diseases.

Lastly, some of our preliminary results indicate that cell death may also play a role in generating effective immune response to mRNA vaccines. If this is further validated then we plan to partner with other companies to improve mRNA vaccines for the prevention of infectious diseases and, tantalisingly, treatment of cancer.

What drew you to your cofounder Caetano Reis e Sousa’s work and what do you generally look for in research you think could be commercialised?

Firstly, it is the quality of science undertaken within the Crick generally and particularly in Caetano’s laboratory: the highest quality proven with a stellar publication record.

Secondly, the field of dendritic cells has not had much commercial attention in the recent past – mainly due to the relative lack of success of dendritic cell therapies to date. Cell therapies can be hugely effective but are highly expensive to develop, can have significant side effects, and require specialist hospital centres to treat patients. The work undertaken by Caetano’s lab is highly innovative and has great potential for translation with treatments that do not rely on cell therapy.

Lastly, it’s about personal connection. Setting up and running a new spin-out is an intense process – so it is imperative that all the people involved have good professional relationships. Having previously worked with Caetano when I was at Cancer Research Technology (CRT), we had established a strong relationship that can withstand the occasional difference in opinion.

What are the next steps for Adendra?

We are currently a virtual company that is building confidence in a number of avenues we wish to explore. Once one or more avenues are sufficiently de-risked, we will be building our own laboratories to progress our lead candidates toward clinical trials. We will remain focused on exploring treatment for cancer and will be seeking collaborative partnerships with other organisations for other indications.

You spent nearly 18 years working for Cancer Research Technology. What role do charities have to play in the translation of research?

Charities have a critical role to play in not just funding, but also translating basic research. They have a ringside seat for new discoveries. Unlike venture capitalists and industry partners, they do not have sole focus on commercial returns. Hence, they are uniquely placed to spot, plan and undertake long-term projects and those that may be highly risky. On other hand, venture capitalist-backed spinouts and industrial partnerships are also crucial as they bring to bear additional capital and industrial expertise to discover and test new drugs.

At the end of the day, there are many more interesting discoveries being made by basic researchers every day than any one organisation could translate to clinical benefit. Hence, it is key that we deploy all our collective experience to prioritise the most promising ones, create efficient plans to explore their full potential and dispassionately cease projects that are unlikely to be fruitful.

How has the industry changed since you’ve been working with life sciences startups?

Like many of my colleagues, I started working in the establishment of life science startups rather by serendipity. Whilst at CRT, I kept track of research undertaken by Facundo Batista (then at Cancer Research UK’s London Research Institute and now at the Ragon Institute in Boston). We realised that some of the technology he was developing could be repurposed to efficiently screen human antibodies. We followed that by establishing BliNK Therapeutics, my first experience as a founder. Subsequently, I have been fortunate to work with brilliant scientists to establish Revitope Oncology, then GammaDelta Therapeutics, and finally Adendra.

In many ways the life-science startup world has changed considerably. The amount of capital needed and being deployed to support such new companies has steadily increased. Academic researchers are also a lot more entrepreneurial than in the past. Whereas there are many more spinouts being created, the availability of experienced talent to run such companies has lagged far behind. Nevertheless, the fundamentals remain the same: having a focused business plan, deploying capital efficiently and killing unproductive projects early to preserve the cash for more deserving ones.

What advice would you give to researchers who are interested in trying to commercialise their work?

It is important to distinguish between ‘translation’ and ‘commercialisation’. Whereas they often go hand in hand, the drivers are different. The former is to explore the potential of your research in fundamental biology to benefit patients. The latter is to partner with a commercially focused organisation to undertake the former. With this in mind, I would urge researchers to always think about translating their work whether via commercialisation or other avenues. Ask basic questions and seek people who can answer them: How can it be done? What do I need? Who has complementary skills to help me? Where can I get additional funding?

Even if your initial project does not succeed, you will learn a great deal from the experience that will be immensely helpful for your next venture.

Find out how Cancer Research Horizons can help you translate your work

Tim Bodicoat is a Science Writer for Cancer Research Horizons