Julio Aguirre-Ghiso has steered the work in his lab at Mount Sinai down some of the less-traveled pathways of cancer research. And it’s led him to launch a biotech — which is having its coming-out party today in New York — that has now set out to develop new medicines tailored for the field he’s been pioneering.
While a massive amount of cancer research has been devoted to a better understanding of tumors and new and better ways to kill tumor cells, Aguirre-Ghiso’s research has centered on “dormant” disseminated tumor cells, or DTCs, that can reactivate long after drugs have wiped out all appearances of cancer — fueling a metastatic response that comes back to kill the patient with near certainty.
That lab work has become the foundation of HiberCell, a new company seeded by Arch last summer and now debuting with a $60.75 million launch round. Ari Nowacek, a principal at Arch who has helped champion the company, is stepping in as BD chief for the startup, which has a small, virtual team of 5 now running the show.
The syndicate Nowacek helped form is telling about the way money comes together in the biopharma world these days. Arch allied itself, as it has before, with Hillhouse and 6 Dimensions out of China. Celgene, still operating as an independent company in the lead-up to finalizing the Bristol-Myers buyout, stepped in here as well. The NYC Life Sciences Fund, eager to help foster a Big Apple hub, also contributed cash, alongside a group of unidentified institutional investors and individuals.
There isn’t anything particularly new about the notion of dissemination in cancer, says Alan Rigby, the co-founder and CSO of the company. That dates back decades. But Aguirre-Ghiso’s lab has made some important breakthroughs in the biology of dissemination, finding that “solitary cells or micro-clusters break away at early stages and disseminate early.”
On his home page on Mount Sinai’s website, the scientist further explains:
My lab has also designed an epigenetic reprogramming therapy to induce dormancy of DTCs, which is being developed into a clinical trial. We also discovered that UPR signaling can promote the survival of dormant tumor cells and that macrophages are key players in the regulation of early dissemination and dormancy. With multiple collaborators we run an NCI-Tumor Microenvironment Network Center that studies the microenvironmental stress and dormancy and develops new technologies to image and target metastasis. We also collaborate to characterize dormancy in human breast, prostate and head and neck cancer DTCs and we study the epigenetic regulation of DTC dormancy. A major effort in our lab is also to develop a translational program with the pharmaceutical industry to identify potential drugs to target dormant disease.
The research they’re doing has direct applications that are particularly suited for the China market, adds Rigby, citing esophageal, gastric and liver cancers. He adds that the launch round should get them into 2022, including a nice stretch after they’re slated to get into the clinic in 2020 or early ’21 with their first drug.
Rigby also says that the team, which is likely to grow somewhat, in-licensed late preclinical drug candidates that they’re working with now. He declined to offer details about those drugs, not unusual for a startup looking to get out ahead of any potential rivals that may appear now.
Image: Julio Aguirre-Ghiso and Alan Rigby. HIBERCELL
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