Aura Biosciences Raises $4.5M to Advance Nano-Drug Weapon Against Cancer

9/8/11Follow @arleneweintraub

Today, Cambridge, MA-based Aura Biosciences announced that it has raised $4.5 million from a group of private investors. The funding brings the total amount raised by the two-year-old company to $8 million. Founder and CEO Elisabet de los Pinos won’t reveal details about the investors, except to say, “It’s a small group of wealthy individuals who are all either CEOs or entrepreneurs in the pharmaceutical industry.”

When Xconomy first profiled Aura in 2009, we quoted chairman Edmundo Muniz calling its technology “an intercontinental ballistic missile” for treating cancer. Aura is developing tiny protein shells that can deliver cancer drugs directly to tumor cells, while avoiding healthy tissue.

Aura’s nano-particles resemble viruses, but they’re engineered so they won’t trigger dangerous immune reactions. “We retain the intelligence of the virus particles so they only target tumors,” says de los Pinos, a former fellow at the MIT Sloan School of Management who worked in Eli Lilly’s oncology unit before founding Aura. “Because they are empty shells, they never replicate. We further modified them so the immune system won’t trap them.”

After having spent the last couple of years in animal testing, Aura has now defined a clinical path for its technology. The company will focus on pre-cancerous conditions that are driven by the HPV virus. HPV is best known for causing some cancers of the cervix, but it can also drive other iterations of the disease, including head and neck cancer. Such pre-cancerous conditions are often treated with surgery, de los Pinos says. “If we could treat them with a drug, that would be a huge advance,” she says.

The company also said today that it has entered into a development agreement with the National Cancer Institute. Aura will team up with the agency to commercialize discoveries by John Schiller, whose HPV research led to the invention of vaccines currently marketed by Merck and GlaxoSmithKline. “We have a top-tier group from the National Cancer Institute that has complementary intellectual property and is excited to work with us,” de los Pinos says. “That’s meaningful to the company.”

Using nanotechnology to tackle cancer is one of the hottest ideas in oncology today. Other companies with similar approaches include BIND Biosciences, co-founded by MIT’s Bob Langer, and Cerulean Pharma, which is developing nano-particles that can deliver the powerful cancer drug camptothecin to tumors.

De los Pinos hopes to prove that Aura’s technology will offer some key advantages. Because Aura’s particles are protein-based, she contends, it will be simpler to maintain consistency during the production process than it might be with other types of materials. She also believes Aura’s virus-based particles may be better equipped to escape defense mechanisms that can cause cells to destroy other types of nano-drugs.

All of that still has to be proven, though, and doing that will require further funding, de los Pinos says. Aura’s immediate plan is to look for funding sources for the lead project, rather than raise a venture round to support the entire company. The company will also continue to explore other uses for the technology, with the goal of defining other research priorities at the beginning of 2012. “The beauty is, our particles can target any tumor,” she says. “We can start small and grow from there.”

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