Arch joins Cel­gene, Chi­na in­vestors bankrolling a pi­o­neer­ing New York biotech start­up fo­cused on a new ap­proach to metas­ta­sis

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.

Ari Nowacek

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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