Surgeons in the business of cutting out tumors have to wonder whether they are getting rid of the whole malignancy, or whether some of the cancer is being left behind to relapse someday. Now a Seattle-based biotech startup, Blaze Bioscience, has raised some significant money to develop technology that helps doctors see during surgery, in real-time, whether they are missing any parts of the tumor.
Blaze, a startup that spun out of Jim Olson’s lab at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, is announcing today it has raised $5 million in its Series A financing from a group of angel investors. The investors are a mostly regional group of pharmaceutical executives, physicians, and wealthy businesspeople, CEO Heather Franklin says. Taken together with a seed financing of $1.3 million, Blaze has now raised a total of $6.3 million since its founding in 2010. This means that Blaze will have the money to establish its own lab, hire a few people, and run the key animal toxicology tests to determine if its “Tumor Paint” technology is good enough to enter human clinical trials by late 2013.
While there aren’t any venture firms or institutional investors betting on Blaze, Franklin says the company will consider raising money from those types of firms in the future. Raising this much money from angels, who typically only sink $1 million or so into fledgling ventures, was an “adventure” but not an impossibly daunting task, she says.
“I couldn’t have predicted how many people I’d get to talk to about Tumor Paint. And I’ve yet to meet somebody who said ‘this product doesn’t make any sense,’ or ‘what do you think you are doing?'” Franklin says. “It’s been fantastic to see the reception we’ve gotten. The comment I get most often is, ‘why doesn’t this already exist?’ The way I look at it, who wouldn’t want to be in a position of developing a product like this?”
Franklin, the former chief business officer of ZymoGenetics before it was acquired by Bristol-Myers Squibb in 2010, has leaned heavily on her contacts at Zymo to figure out the best way of turning the Tumor Paint concept into a real business.
The big idea at Blaze, which I described in a feature story last October, is to apply molecular “paint” to tumors to help surgeons clearly see the difference between cancerous and healthy tissues. Currently, there’s no way for a surgeon to see in real time during an operation whether he or she has completely cut out a tumor. Physicians today use MRI scans, after a patient has been sewn up, to make sure they got the whole tumor out. There’s a cost—in time, money and invasiveness to the patient—if a doctor has to go back in and cut out some straggling tumor mass later, or attack the cancer in some other way, like with chemotherapy.
Blaze is seeking to improve this situation by helping surgeons see if they have sliced out the whole tumor mass while the operation is still ongoing. The technology is designed to combine a fluorescent beacon with a peptide molecule that binds with tumors. When a surgeon directs a camera equipped with near infrared light onto the surgical site, the light should reflect on the fluorescent tags and provide a vivid picture of which tissue is cancerous. After the tumor is removed, the surgeon can take another look to see if any residual bits of tumor are left behind, before the patient gets sewn up.
Last fall, Blaze talked about initially applying this technology toward surgical removal of brain tumors, and then advancing into other settings for the removal of solid tumors from the prostate, breast, colon, etc. After getting some more feedback from the team, Franklin says Blaze wants to re-focus its efforts to show “broad commercial utility” across a variety of tumor types from the start, rather than get boxed into a perception that it’s only useful for brain tumors.
Like any biotech company, Blaze will need to keep raising money to gather convincing evidence that its technology is safe and effective enough to reach the U.S. marketplace. Some of the money could come from federal research grants, Franklin says. At some point, venture or institutional money could get involved, most likely when the technology is ready for clinical trials, she says. But in order to get the company this far, the company needed a strong network of local investors willing to gamble.
“We’d really like to keep this initial funding of the company local and regional in scope,” Franklin says. “We really found there are a lot of people who want to support business in this area. There’s really something valuable about having your investors understand the importance of having companies form in the Seattle area. It’s a nice situation to have in our investor pool.”