Accelerator’s New Startup, Oncofactor, Seeks to Spark Immune System Fight Against Cancer

5/24/11Follow @xconomy

Seattleites know better than most that the notion that you can spur the immune system to fight cancer is going through a renaissance. So it shouldn’t be any surprise that Accelerator’s newest startup, Oncofactor, is testing out a variation on this red-hot theme.

Accelerator, the Seattle-based haven for biotech startups, has plunked down the first $2.1 million into a financing for Oncofactor that could be worth as much as $5.1 million over time, according to a regulatory filing. The company is being spearheaded by Sarah Warren, 29, a newly minted PhD immunologist who previously worked in Alan Aderem’s lab at the Institute for Systems Biology. Warren’s task will be to develop experimental antibody drugs against new biological targets involved in cancer, which ought to disable some of the mechanisms that normally prevent the immune system from destroying cancer cells.

“If you can stop cancer from blunting the immune system, then you can free up the immune system’s ability to clear the cancer cells,” says Carl Weissman, the CEO of Accelerator.

This idea, which Weissman came up with about 18 months ago, faced intense skepticism among the scientific team at Accelerator, including from Warren, who spent two years on a fellowship program that exposes young scientists from the Institute for Systems Biology to the world of business at Accelerator. She doubted Weissman’s hypothesis, but when he challenged her to prove it wrong by using bioinformatics tools to find new targets, she came back with more and more encouraging data to suggest the idea just might work.

“This is an idea that’s a little bit out there,” Warren says. She could have followed the usual path toward a postdoctoral fellowship in academia, but jumped at this because, she said, “few if any postdoc positions provide the opportunity to make a leap of this magnitude.” She added: “to find something novel for cancer is a really great opportunity.”

Sarah Warren

Seattle-based Dendreon (NASDAQ: DNDN) has staked a claim as a trailblazer in the business of cancer immunotherapy with sipuleucel-T (Provenge), a drug designed to “teach” the immune system to recognize a biological signature of cancer so it can rev up an aggressive attack against tumor cells. Following fast behind Dendreon, Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY) has shown an ability to extend lives of melanoma patients with a new drug, ipilimumab (Yervoy) that is supposed to work in a different way, by essentially releasing the brakes on the immune system that otherwise prevent it from launching a full-frontal attack on malignant cells.

Oncofactor’s approach sounds similar to Bristol’s in concept, although Weissman said the startup is going after a series of novel biological targets—so that would apparently rule out CTLA-4, the target of the Bristol drug. The targets were identified through a bioinformatics research effort that Warren worked on over the past 12 months, during the “25th, 26th, and 27th hours of the day,” she said. While most pharma companies are working on all the same hot targets—PI3kinase, MTOR, MEK, MET to name a few—Oncofactor is looking to tread in the great unknown, developing drugs against targets that haven’t been validated by others.

Oncofactor is still in its earliest of early stages. The company hasn’t yet synthesized drug candidates, much less sifted through which ones are the best to test in the petri dish or animals. “I’m still buying pipettes,” Warren joked.

The startup has identified a number of drug targets, although Weissman wouldn’t identify them, or say how many there are, because Accelerator has … Next Page »

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