A Mubadala-backed biotech is using patient tumor tissue grown in a petri dish to change precision oncology
As Duke professor Xiling Shen tells it, the idea for his new biotech Xilis dates all the way back to 2009. Shen taught at Cornell at the time, researching circuit design in the university’s bioengineering department, when he came across a paper from Dutch biologist Hans Clevers about a technology called “organoids,” or tissue cultures made up of “3D gel.”
Shen tells Endpoints News he saw the therapeutic potential here, allowing scientists to test drugs on real patient tissue in petri dishes in what would be a first, but also wondered about the limitations of such technology. Could this process be accomplished quickly and cheaply? And how challenging would it be to scale up the tech to the point where it could be widely used?
The limitations have ostensibly been overcome enough to recruit blue-chip sovereign wealth fund Mubadala to lead a $70 million Series A for the biotech, putting a seal of approval on the platform Shen believes will transform the precision therapy space. Using organoid technology, Xilis is aiming to analyze patients’ tumors in their native microenvironments in order to provide more personalized and better targeted cancer treatments.
In the cancer space, where it can be difficult to predict how any given therapy might work for each individual patient, modeling tools like these are going to be among the next wave of innovative technologies, Mubadala investor Ayman AlAbdallah said.
“Less than one out of 10 cancer drugs make it to market,” AlAbdallah told Endpoints. “The connected problem here is once a drug is approved it does not necessarily benefit all the patients it’s administered to … underlying this challenge or barrier is the lack of tools to precisely model human disease outside the body.”
Shen had help bringing the technology to where it is today, he says. In 2014 he met co-founder David Hsu, a GI clinician at Duke, and the two teamed up. The perspective Hsu brought working with patients helped shape their shared vision, and Shen moved his lab to Duke in 2015 to better focus on building out the platform.
Things came to a head in 2019 when Clevers visited Duke to give a keynote speech. Shen and Hsu grabbed lunch with Clevers afterwards, and Clevers noted some of the same limitations Shen said he’d thought of all those years earlier. By the next morning, after listening to how Shen worked to try overcoming them, Clevers agreed to join the company.
At the heart of Xilis is a simple, key concept: By taking a piece of a patient’s tumor tissue and growing it as an organoid in a petri dish, Shen says researchers can test thousands of therapies or drug combinations to see how the tumor might react. By modeling tumors in such a way, Xilis can also get clinician input for how they’d prefer to treat their patients.
“It’s not just the cells but the involvement of the tumor, including immune cells, that’s really mimicking the entire environment,” Shen told Endpoints. “For pharma, it’s also a significant advantage because we’re the first that can encapsulate the tumor with its original immune environment outside the body.”
The scientists got started with a seed round back in November 2019 and started looking for the Series A this past April after recruiting several partners in the pharma space to use their technology. Xilis doesn’t have its own pipeline yet, but Shen says the biotech is currently focused on helping these companies complete their research faster.
And the organoids can be used at any stage of the discovery process, Shen adds, from the preclinical stage to in-human trials. That could help biopharmas design smarter clinical trials down the road if they have a better idea of how their experimental drugs work.
For now, Xilis plans to use the cash to further develop the platform and its AI capabilities, as well as recruiting more partners. If everything goes according to plan, the biotech hopes to shake up different kinds of treatments across the cell therapy space, Shen said.
“The entire field right now faces a big challenge different from conventional drugs,” Shen said. “But these are very highly individualized therapies. How do you know you’ve engineered T cells that treat as many patients as possible? So we are providing the first enabling technologies to test engineered T cells on the same patients’ tumor before they put it into the patients.”
Thursday’s Series A was joined by new investors including GV, LSP, Catalio Capital Management, and Duke Angel Network. Current investors Felicis Ventures, Two Sigma Ventures, Pear VC, KdT Ventures, and Alix Ventures also participated.