A new startup is working towards using a patient’s own genetic makeup to fight cancer.
Catamaran Bio, a startup at LabCentral in Cambridge, was established to consider the potency of natural killer (NK) cells in fighting cancer, and so far, it has raised $42 million from five venture capital companies including the founding investor, SV Health Investors, of Boston.
“This was a group of people who had wanted to do something together for a long time,” said Houman Ashrafian, managing partner of SV Health Investors.
Immunotherapy drugs such as Kymriah, Novartis’s leukemia therapy, have shown promising results for the treatment of blood cancers. The approach, also called CAR-T therapy, relies on harvesting patients’ T cells and genetically altering them to target the cancer after they are reintegrated into the patient’s genetic makeup. Earlier in 2020, researchers at MD Anderson Cancer Centre announced they achieved a “73% response rate with a CD19-targeting therapy derived from donated cells in patients with relapsed or refractory non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and chronic lymphocytic leukaemia.” This demonstrates the efficiency of the cancer-eliminating process.
The process can take several weeks and can be extremely expensive, however. Kymriah, one of the existing options, costs $475,000 for a single course of treatment. Yescarta, a treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma developed by Gilead’s Kite Pharma unit, costs $373,000.
Catamaran was founded to build on research conducted by George Washington University’s Catherine Bollard and University of Minnesota’s Branden Moriarty. The other founders include Houman Ashrafian, Tim Harris and Kevin Pojasek of SV Health Investors, and Obsidian Therapeutics and Serien co-founder Vipin Suri. The company’s proprietary, Tailwind, designs and engineers improved CAR-NK cells using synthetic biology.
Catamaran says, it “has novel structures in play that stimulate production of immune cytokine molecules by the CAR-NK cell, enhancing the cell-killing action.” Another is “the delivery of molecule switches to CAR-NK cells, used to activate biological pathways that can help overcome the immunosuppressive microenvironment around tumours and improve recruitment of other elements of an immune response.”
The company intends to develop a similar solution for solid tumors found in diseases like lung cancer and kidney cancer. But, instead of harvesting T cells, it wants to obtain natural killer cells from healthy individuals. Scientists would use these to develop a readily available drug for combating tumors.
“There are no approved cell therapies for solid tumors,” according to Suri, who is serving as the startup’s chief scientific officer. However, several companies are working on using natural killer cells, including Japan-based Takeda Pharmaceutical in collaboration with The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. He added, “It’s unclear whether such a treatment would require only one dose or multiple doses. For some cancers, repeat dosing may ensure better patient outcomes, and others may not require repeat dosing. It’s premature to discuss the cost of any potential drug.”
The company’s name alludes to its mission to propel ahead in the process of fighting cancer and to find viable solutions as quickly as possible. Suri explained, “Catamarans move swiftly in the water with efficiency, riding above choppy seas with little drag.”