KEW, Led by Millennium Co-Founder, Seeks to Bring Big-Time Cancer Care to Community Clinics

4/27/11

A new cancer care startup called KEW Group has been quietly operating in the Boston area and entered advanced talks to raise a sizable amount from venture investors. With an ensemble cast of founders from Harvard and elsewhere, KEW plans to provide community oncology clinics with information technology-supported services to make evidence-based medicine, such as genetic testing, part of routine cancer care.

Concord, MA-based KEW (pronounced like the letter “q”) has been in the formative stage for more than a year. Jeff Elton, a former chief operating officer at Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research in Cambridge, MA, is the new company’s co-founder and chief executive. A few other big names from Boston biotech and business are rallying behind the new company. Raju Kucherlapati, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and a co-founder of Millennium Pharmaceuticals, is the new company’s co-founder and chairman, bringing biology and drug development expertise. He’s joined on the KEW board by John Glaser, the former chief information officer of Partners Healthcare in Boston, who is now chief executive of Siemens Health Services. And from the business strategy side, Clayton Christensen, the renowned Harvard Business School professor and author of “The Innovator’s Prescription,” has also gotten involved.

KEW aims to enable community oncologists to deliver the same level of evidence-based care as specialists at research hospitals. While academic research hospitals such as Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston have stellar reputations for providing cutting-edge cancer care, only about one out of five cancer patients in the U.S. gets treated at a research hospital. The majority of patients get their care at community oncology clinics like the ones KEW is targeting. Community oncologists, unlike specialists at big research hospitals, generally see patients with many forms of cancer. They are faced with a plethora of information on the complexities of each cancer type that have been uncovered through years of genetic studies. At a research hospital, on the other hand, a specialist might be an expert in treating cancer of one specific organ and only see patients with, say, breast cancer or lung cancer.

“The idea was, can you equip [cancer doctors] wherever they are, whether it’s in southern Illinois or Arkansas, and make them as proficient in how they interact with their patients as the best specialists at the top centers anywhere,” KEW’s Elton says. “That’s really what we’d like to do, but in a very practical, economical, and seamless way.”

As part of KEW’s strategy to build a network of community oncology clinics, the company has plans to merge with Cancer Clinics of Excellence, a San Rafael, CA-based group that consists of more than 20 community oncology practices in over a dozen states across the U.S. The CCE practice network, which now treats about 5 percent of cancer patients in the country, has already taken steps to provide patients with evidence-based cancer treatment in order to improve outcomes. The merger between KEW and CCE is expected to take place once KEW closes on the required financing to complete the deal, Kucherlapati says. (There’s also a company name change in the offing, Elton says.)

Kucherlapati (whose last name initial represents the “K” in KEW) previously advocated for making genetic testing part of routine care at Partners and Harvard-affiliated hospitals in the Boston area in the early part of the last decade. He and others established in 2001 what is now called the Partners Healthcare Center for Personalized Genetic Medicine. That effort includes a molecular testing lab that helps doctors at Partners hospitals such as Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in weighing patients’ genetics in treatment decisions.

Indeed, the genetics of a patient’s tumor can make all the difference in how he or she responds to a molecularly targeted drug. Take Roche’s cancer treatment trastuzumab (Herceptin), which is only recommended for the 30 percent of breast cancer patients whose tumors overexpress the HER2 gene. Likewise, Pfizer’s (NYSE:PFE) experimental cancer drug crizotinib has shown tremendous results, but only for about 5 percent of non-small cell lung cancer patients whose tumors have ALK gene mutations.

While these and many other drugs help doctors tailor treatments for each patient’s tumor, they also represent a growing body of information that doctors often have to process to provide evidence-based care. And to hear KEW’s founders, it’s no easy task for community oncologists who are treating patients with multiple types of cancer to stay on top of it all. And their community practices aren’t generally equipped with anything close to the capabilities of the personalized genetic medicine center that Kucherlapati helped set up for Partners and Harvard Medical School in Boston.

“You can’t keep all this in your head anymore,” Kathy Behrens Wilsey, a co-founder of KEW, says. “[Oncologists] attend meetings, they read journals, they watch the news, and they try to keep track. But it’s a lot of information and it covers an increasing number of cancers.”

KEW plans to build an IT infrastructure that would enable community oncologists in its network to get some standard prompts in their clinics to help guide them in making treatment decisions with the best available medical evidence of what might work best for their patients. This could mean providing a doctor with options such as ordering a genetic test of a patient’s cancer before prescribing a specific treatment. The information system KEW has planned would also be able to present new discoveries in cancer medicine, including molecularly targeted drugs in clinical trials, alerting physicians in KEW’s network of experimental drugs that might work against a patient’s tumor, according to the firm’s founders.

There are already multiple efforts large and small to standardize evidence-based approaches in cancer care. The National Comprehensive Cancer Network, for one, is a nonprofit group that publishes treatment guidelines for specific types of tumors based on input from some of the top medical centers in the country. Practices that are part of CCE, with which KEW plans to merge, have already adopted standards or pathways for treating different types of cancer. Yet KEW plans to introduce information on molecular markers for specific cancers into such treatment pathways that those practices use. The firm aims to provide such molecular data, which help doctors make testing and treatment decisions, in a more useful and accessible format to community practices than is typical today.

The company is expected to have its IT system ready within about a year after securing its planned financing, which is expected to close in the near future, Kucherlapati says. He and other founders declined to reveal details about the financing. Yet the founders are well known in the investor community. For example, Kathy Behrens Wilsey, the co-founder (and board member) of KEW, is a former partner at Robertson Stevens Investments in San Francisco and past president of the National Venture Capital Association.

Kucherlapati is known for his founding roles at standout biotechs such as Cambridge, MA-based Millennium, which became part of Japan’s Takeda Pharmaceutical through an $8.8 billion buyout in 2008, and Abgenix, a West Coast developer of antibody drugs that biotech giant Amgen (NASDAQ:AMGN) scooped up for $2.2 billion in 2006. He also serves on the boards of Cambridge, MA-based cancer drug developer Aveo Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:AVEO) and Boston-based startup Enlight Biosciences.

There are many more bigwigs in cancer research and treatment who are involved with KEW. Others involved in steering the early plans for the company include MIT biology professor and Nobel Laureate Robert Horvitz and Bruce Johnson, a lung cancer specialist at Dana-Farber and professor at Harvard Medical School.

With all this brainpower behind KEW, it will be interesting to see whether the firm succeeds in providing real innovations for cancer care at community clinics.

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