Years before Laurie Glimcher left her job as dean at Weill Cornell Medical College and took the top job at Dana-Farber, the scientist was in the lab probing the way in which certain conditions caused unfolded proteins to clutter endoplasmic reticulum (ER) pathways — studying the ways that played out in the tumor microenvironment.
The ER stress that sparked in turn triggered various survival mechanisms — in particular the tumor-promoting IRE1α pathway — that could help these tumors adapt to a number of threats.
“The ER stress pathway is designed to help cells survive in a hostile environment,” Glimcher tells me, the kind of hostile environment that frequently besets tumors. But there was more to come. One of the former postdocs in her lab, Juan Cubillos-Ruiz, found that another way they promoted tumor survival was by directly tamping down on the immune cells dispatched for an attack — countering the immune response that has become a central feature in new cancer fighting combos.
They’ve been working on a small molecule IRE1α inhibitor with some scientific proof of principle evidence to back them up.
“What is a little more surprising is that we could not only increase the death of tumors,” says Glimcher, but also block a process that disabled immune cells, which “increased their ability to kill off cells.”
That paper published in Cell in 2015, she said, “turned the field on its head.”
Their work provided the scientific foundation for a new immuno-oncology startup fostered by Versant Ventures in 2016. And now their biotech, Quentis Therapeutics, is debuting with a $48 million A round with plans to get into the clinic next year.
Michael Aberman, who left his job as senior strategist for Regeneron last fall to run the company, says Quentis now has 4 full time staffers, including himself, and a few part-timers to help out. But that is about to change, with enough money in the launch round to staff up to 20 to 30 employees for the preclinical stretch ahead.
In the process, they are kicking off yet another Big Apple upstart that attracted support from a large syndicate that includes New York Ventures, which is backing local startups in an effort to generate a critical mass of life science companies in New York. Versant and Polaris co-led the round. The rest of the international group also includes LS Polaris Innovation Fund, AbbVie Ventures, Taiho Pharmaceutical, Yonghua Capital and Alexandria Venture Investments.
It’s that combination of global cash and scientific talent that New York is relying on to spur a host of new biotech startups with the hope that one day they can rival a major hub like Cambridge/Boston.
Glimcher, meanwhile, has also been playing a quiet but prominent role at London-based GlaxoSmithKline, where she recently joined the board to help advise on its scientific focus at a time GSK is diving deep into new cancer therapies and growing the oncology pipeline.
When you can start to reprogram the tumor microenvironment, she says, you have the potential to substantially broaden the impact of new therapies, reaching far bigger numbers of patients.
“Wonderful as immuno-oncology has been,” says Glimcher, “we’re still treating a minority of patients. We’re really at the tip of the iceberg here.”
Startups like Quentis are going deeper.
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