Aura Biosciences Aims to Develop “Ballistic Missile” Drug to Beat Pancreatic Cancer, Deliver RNAi Therapies

3/12/09

[[Correction: see editor's note below]] It’s a difficult time for a brand new biotech firm to be drumming up interest in a novel approach to delivering drugs, with investors snubbing so many firms with drugs already in clinical trials. But the market conditions haven’t stopped Elisabet de los Pinos, a former fellow at the MIT Sloan School of Management, from raising more than $3 million in an initial financing in recent months for her new company Aura Biosciences.

Aura, which has an office at an incubator in Cambridge, MA, plans to commercialize drugs based on discoveries at European research institutions. The firm’s particles, made of nano-sized protein shells, could improve delivery of approved cancer drugs by limiting their affects on healthy cells. The startup also sees the ultra-tiny particles as potential carriers of RNA-interference treatments, which firms have had difficulty delivering to tissues deep in the body. The firm wants to license its technology for RNAi drug delivery and develop it internally for treating cancer.

The biotech firm, which still needs to complete animal studies before it can advance into human clinical trials, wants to put the targeting capabilities of its technology to the test in treating pancreatic cancer, says de los Pinos, the startup’s president and CEO. [[Editor's note: this paragraph and the headline have been corrected to say that Aura is developing drugs to treat pancreatic cancer, not prostate cancer, as was initially reported.]]

Aura’s nano-sized protein shell—which can be engineered to mimic how certain viruses can elude the immune system and attach to specific cells—may be able to carry cancer-killing drugs directly to pancreas tumor cells while avoiding healthy cells. The firm’s technology may also be applied to other types of cancer. Earlier this month the firm revealed that it licensed peptide technology from British biotech firm Cancer Research Technology, and de los Pinos says the peptides would be used on the surface of Aura’s particles to target specific cancer cells.

Aura chairman Edmundo Muniz, a former executive of drug giant Eli Lilly and the CEO of cancer drug developer Tigris Pharmaceuticals, compares Aura’s drug particles to long-range missiles.

“Aura’s technology mimics an intercontinental ballistic missile,” Muniz wrote in an e-mail. “We know we can send it to a target thousands of miles away and we know the missile is so precise it can penetrate through the window of a building in a specific city, in a specific block, and inside a specific floor.”

Still, the startup isn’t the only game in town using nanotechnology to attack cancer cells. A couple blocks from Aura’s office in Kendall Square, BIND Biosciences is working on polymer-based nanoparticles that also offer a potential way to target and destroy specific cancer cells. BIND scientific founders Bob Langer of MIT and Omid Farokhzad of Harvard Medical School have tested nanoparticles to zero in on prostate cancer cells and deliver chemotherapy drugs. Another local contender is Cerulean Pharmaceuticals.

Aura—which raised its $3 million funding earlier this year from individuals in Europe and the U.S.—is also shopping for an RNAi drug firm to license the technology. There’s been some concern about how RNAi molecules, which offer a promising way to silence disease genes, can be transported intact through the bloodstream and into cells. Luke wrote about how Cambridge-based Alnylam Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:ALNY) is approaching the problem to deliver RNAi drugs into liver cancer cells.

De los Pinos, who splits her time between Cambridge and her home in Spain, says that this year her firm plans to compile data from animal tests to provide evidence that its particles can deliver RNAi drugs. The firm also wants to accumulate data to submit to the FDA in order to get permission to begin human clinical trials of its cancer treatments. To limit the firm’s expenses, she says, the company plans to conduct its tests at the European labs where its technology was discovered.

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