The suspense is excruciating for the people at Bellevue, WA-based Light Sciences Oncology. They have been waiting almost a year longer than expected for results from a couple of cancer studies that could make or break their company. They have no idea if they are waiting because their drug is a big success, helping cancer patients live longer, or whether it’s some kind of fluke.
That’s the sort of uncertainty that many biotech companies have to live with. Light Sciences Oncology expects it will have more clarity about its future sometime this summer, when it rips the blinds off a study of 208 patients with liver cancer, and another one of 450 people with colorectal cancer that has spread to the liver.
“The proof for us will be in the pudding this year,” says CEO Llew Keltner.
It’s been a long and sometimes lonely journey for this 38-person company, which aspires to treat cancer in a way unlike anything on the market. The company is developing a drug/device combination therapy against solid tumors that aren’t treated well with conventional drugs that circulate through the body. The Light Sciences therapy is designed to work by inserting a disposable catheter into a solid tumor, mounted with a light-emitting diode on the tip, and turning on the light. The patient is then injected with an inactive chemical drug called talaporfin sodium (Aptocine) that becomes activated to kill tumors within a limited wavelength around the light. It’s supposed to fight cancer without damaging the healthy tissue nearby. Surprising findings last year, presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology, suggested the drug-light combo has a second mode of action, by awakening the immune system to fight cancer cells in other parts of the body.
This company has been around since 1995, and certainly encountered its share of skeptics along the way. It existed many of those years through the largesse of one particularly generous shareholder, Craig Watjen, who made his fortune as the treasurer in the early days at Microsoft. But this isn’t just one rich guy’s vanity project or basic science experiment—Light Sciences has raised more than $137 million in its history, secured access to another $35 million last November, and has been backed by some savvy folks. The former director of the National Cancer Institute, Vincent DeVita, chairs the company’s scientific advisory board. Essex Woodlands Health Ventures, Johnson & Johnson Development Corporation and Novo A/S are backing the company. Light Sciences Oncology flirted with the idea of an IPO before withdrawing its prospectus two years ago, citing poor market conditions.
All the important business questions—whether Light Sciences can rekindle its IPO hopes, whether it will secure a partnership with a Big Pharma company, whether its treatment can win FDA clearance—will depend on the results of the two clinical trials this summer.
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