Seattle-based Blaze Bioscience has gotten a little extra vote of confidence, a little more cash, and a few more smart people to help it move ahead with its new cancer surgery technology.
Blaze, a spinoff from Jim Olson’s lab at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, is announcing today it has closed its Series A financing of $8.5 million. That means Blaze has scraped together an extra $3.5 million since an initial fundraising close in June, and that the company has now raised about $9.8 million since its founding in 2010.
The investment group, which includes more than 50 people, is mainly composed of biotech executives, physicians, and wealthy businesspeople, CEO Heather Franklin says.
With the extra money in the bank, Blaze plans to push its lead product candidate, BLZ-100, through toxicology testing and into its first clinical trial before the end of this year, Franklin says. The financing enabled the company to add a couple of key hires with experience at ZymoGenetics and Seattle Genetics, who will help the company take the important next steps in clinical development, and small-scale manufacturing.
“There’s a lot of enthusiasm out there for supporting an innovative technology, and we’ve gotten really a vote of confidence for this management team that I mostly transferred from ZymoGenetics,” Franklin says. “People are excited for there to be some more biotech going on in town. I really felt that.”
The idea at Blaze Bioscience is to apply a sort of molecular “paint” to tumors to help surgeons distinguish 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 removed a tumor, or whether some troublesome bits of tissue are being left behind to grow and spread.
Physicians, as I described in an October 2011 feature, can use MRI scans after a patient has been sewn up to see what part of the tumor might be lingering. If there is some tumor hanging around, then the doctor has a decision to make about whether to do another surgery, just keep an eye on it, or attack it some other way, like with chemotherapy.
The Blaze product candidate is made up of a genetically engineered peptide that’s supposed to bind with a number of different tumor types. That peptide is chemically linked to a fluorescent beacon. The idea is that when the combination molecule gets injected into a surgical site, a surgeon should be able to see tumor tissue that’s lit up, next to healthy tissue that isn’t, with the help of a fluorescent imaging camera.
Of course, that’s not as simple as it sounds. Blaze has sought to make sure it can make a consistent product at increasing scale as it moves through clinical trials, so it hired Claudia Jochheim as its new senior director of process development and manufacturing.
Jochheim previously worked at Seattle Genetics, where she was involved in moving a novel cancer drug linked to a toxin—brentuximab vedotin (Adcetris)—from development to the market. Jochheim has helped Blaze scale up its manufacturing process 100-fold, which is necessary if Blaze is going to evolve from a research project into a company, Franklin says.
“We’re at a scale now that can lead us through mid-stage studies,” Franklin says.
Another key addition to the Blaze team is Dennis Miller, the new senior vice president of development. Miller, like Franklin, is a veteran of ZymoGenetics, which was acquired by Bristol-Myers Squibb for $885 million in 2010. Miller has been involved in preclinical and clinical development of more than 20 different drug candidates, Franklin says.
Blaze is staying small, with a team of just nine employees, Franklin says. The company has established labs and offices at the Fairview Research Center in Seattle, which makes it neighbors with Novo Nordisk and NanoString Technologies. Blaze isn’t doing its manufacturing there, as it relies on contract manufacturers, Franklin says.
The $8.5 million financing should be enough to take Blaze through what it considers “proof of principle” in clinical trials, Franklin says.
Blaze isn’t the only group seeking to test a concept around tumor illumination for surgery. A competing company called Avelas Biosciences, from the UC San Diego lab of Nobel laureate Roger Tsien, raised $7.65 million in December from Avalon Ventures. Avalon partner Jay Lichter told my Xconomy colleague Bruce Bigelow in December that the company should be able to complete its first application to begin clinical trials “in a few months.”
For a closer look at the concept Blaze is pursuing, check this 3-minute documentary starring Blaze founder Jim Olson, and directed by local filmmakers Bert Klasey, Chris Baron, and James Allen Smith. The film was honored last year as an “audience favorite” at the Sundance Film Festival.