Stemline Makes Headway Against Cancer Stem Cells And Proves Value of Virtual Model

6/8/11Follow @arleneweintraub

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at the American Society of Hematology meeting in December, the company was able to show a significant survival benefit, including two remissions.

Unlike other experimental treatments for AML, such as that being developed by Stemline’s New Jersey neighbor Cyclacel Therapeutics, SL-401 is not a chemotherapeutic agent. Many chemo treatments affect normal hematopoietic—or blood-forming—stem cells, as well as cancer cells. But the IL-3 receptor that SL-401 targets is not prevalent on those normal stem cells, so it may have much less of a destructive effect on healthy cells than chemo does, Bergstein says.

If all goes well, Stemline could be in Phase 3 trials on both of its lead compounds next year. And it’s moving towards those pivotal trials with a workforce of about a dozen, and just $12.5 million that it raised in a 2007 Series A round from the hedge fund company Pequot Capital Management (now defunct). Stemline is a lean, “virtual company” that relies heavily on its academic collaborators, which over the years have included Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. “We’ve been very careful in the way we spend our money,” Bergstein says.

Stemline’s executives have started talking to potential funding sources about raising another round, but Bergstein says the company doesn’t yet need to seek out a Big Pharma partner for either lead drug. “Our philosophy is to have the wherewithal to develop these drugs on our own,” he says.

When Bergstein started Stemline, he was a bit of a lone wolf in his pursuit of cancer stem cells, he says. But his career path convinced him it was an area worth exploring. Bergstein completed a fellowship in hematology and medical oncology at New York Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Medical College of Cornell University, where he is still a volunteer faculty member. He later worked as a biopharmaceuticals analyst on Wall Street at Cancer Advisors Inc., which advised investment funds on publicly held oncology companies. “I convinced myself that cancer stem cells were key to attacking the disease,” he says.

Now a number of companies have started exploring CSCs, including biotechs OncoMed of Redwood City, CA, and Boston-based Verastem, as well as a handful of Big Pharma firms that are “starting to dabble internally,” Bergstein says.

All that fascination with CSCs can only help Stemline, Bergstein believes, especially as the company gears up to raise more capital. “The more activity the better,” he says. “CSC research is reaching a tipping point.”

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