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another 18 to 24 months of development work before it can go into clinical trials, Franklin says. But Blaze has already settled on a strategy for how to best apply this in the clinic, in patients undergoing surgery to remove brain tumors. Partly because the brain is such sensitive territory where surgeons try to tread very carefully, about 80 percent of brain cancers end up recurring around the edges, meaning there was probably some tumor left behind in the original surgery. But if the Blaze concept works with brain cancers, the technology should extend to other solid-tumor forms of cancer, like those of the lung, prostate, breast, pancreas, and colon, Franklin says.
“The tumor paint is going to allow surgeons to see whether they’ve gotten complete resection of tumors in real-time,” Franklin says.
Blaze isn’t the only startup with ideas for helping surgeons tell the difference between healthy and cancerous tissue. San Diego-based Avelas Biosciences, founded by Nobel laureate Roger Tsien and backed by Avalon Ventures, described its strategy to Xconomy back in April 2010. Like Blaze, the company was said to be developing peptides that are designed to bind with certain enzymes in tumors. The Avelas peptides are made to carry fluorescent tags, which a surgeon sees when shining a light into the tissues.
“The major difference is that extensive pre-clinical studies indicate that Tumor Paint works for many types of solid tumors, not just one or two,” Olson says. “Furthermore, we observed that Tumor Paint could detect as few as a few hundred cancer cells traveling from one lymph node to another, indicating the level of sensitivity that is desired by surgeons and patients.”
Franklin says she did a lot of digging on the Blaze technology before she decided to take the plunge. She could have taken on a business development role at another biotech company, after clinching a number of deals at ZymoGenetics. But she says she spent the last couple years at Zymo branching beyond her business development role, and working more closely with CEO Doug Williams on long-range strategic planning. It was that kind of strategic planning that was clearly necessary to make a company like Blaze take off, and something that got her excited.
Since there aren’t very many biotech companies being founded in the downtrodden economy of 2011, the opportunities have to be especially promising to attract financing and management talent. That’s the bet Franklin, Novak, and Lobanova are making.
“It says a lot about the technology that people have been willing to provide us with some funding to get going. It’s very exciting, and we’re getting ready to go forward.”
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