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 filed patent applications on some, but not all of them. “We’re not talking about three or four targets, we’re talking about tens of targets,” Weissman says.

Besides the raw science, there are other threads to the story that are quite interesting. Warren, at 29, is about as young of a scientific entrepreneur as you will ever see in biotech, where investors often prize management teams who have been there, done that. Weissman said he became convinced that Warren was ready for this responsibility because he got to know her over a two-year period when she did her part-time fellowship at the Accelerator, and was able to handle every task he threw at her, like reviewing the relevant scientific literature, competitive reviews of patent filings, putting together a budget, scientific plan, etc.

“At every step of the way, she stepped up,” Weissman says. “It’s worth the risk to throw her in the deep end of the pool.”

Of course, Warren won’t be doing everything singlehandedly. She’ll lean on a scientific advisory board that includes Pat Gray, the Accelerator’s chief scientific director; David McElligott, the lead scientist at Mirina, another Accelerator startup; Ken Grabstein, the chief scientific officer of Seattle-based Allozyne; Mike Deeley, a former senior director at Icos; Steve Gillis, a managing director at Arch Venture Partners; Larry Tjolker, a scientist at Xori, another Accelerator startup; and Charlotte Hubbert, a Kauffman Fellow at Accelerator.

Oncofactor is the 12th company to get its start inside Accelerator, a venture-backed operation founded in 2003. Since it is starting at such at early point, without a license to technology that was tested at a university or somewhere else, it will take a little more time to reach the usual milestones that Accelerator companies need to reach if they are going to spin out of the nest and become freestanding companies with their own administration and infrastructure. Instead of being held to an 18-to-24 month schedule, it will be expected to generate some animal data in about 30 months, Weissman says.

Oncofactor about as early-stage as Accelerator’s past investments in Theraclone Sciences and VLST, Weissman says. That means really early, as in, there’s a lot of work to do.

“It’s what we do here. We do the earliest of the early,” Weissman says.

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