HiberCell, a new biotech company based in New York City, is launching with five employees and $60.75 million from ARCH Venture Partners and other investors to pursue an unorthodox path in cancer drug development.
Cancer is a disease of uncontrolled growth, as it’s popularly understood. The normal checks to cells’ proliferation are gone, and they grow into a tumor.
But over the past few decades scientists have been learning moreabout cancer cells that behave in a very uncancerlike way: They go “dormant” and hide in the body after the original tumor is removed until they reawaken, causing the cancer to come back and metastasize in other organs.
“It’s very antidogmatic,” says Julio Aguirre-Ghiso, HiberCell’s scientific founder and director of solid tumor and metastasis research at New York City’s Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Standard cancer treatments target cells that are growing and dividing rapidly like typical cancer cells, but they miss dormant cells.
His lab’s work has described the molecular mechanisms that signal how cancer cells go dormant and keep themselves alive in their sleeping state. “In doing so we are able to look for drugs to perhaps put tumor cells into dormancy, keep them asleep and innocuous, or block their survival mechanism and kill them while they’re sleeping,” says Aguirre-Ghiso, who has been working in this field since his postdoc 20 years ago. By targeting the dormant cells, he says, the goal is to delay or prevent the cancer coming back and spreading, which is often what kills people.
President and chief scientific officer Alan Rigby (there’s no CEO) says that the molecules HiberCell has licensed (but hasn't disclosed) can use the biology of dormancy in both ways, to induce it in cells and then to kill them. The molecules have not yet been tested in humans, though a small clinical trial is under way testing the approach of inducing dormancy in recurrent prostate cancer patients with repurposed drugs already approved by the Food & Drug Administration for other uses.
Rigby acknowledges "it puts a little bit of heat on the company" that it's launching from a scientific body of evidence that's been building for two decades but has not yet been a major focus of cancer treatment development. He and Aguirre-Ghiso met in 2012 when Rigby was a Manhattan-based executive in Eli Lilly's cancer business. The two kept in touch about the scientist's work on dormancy in cancer, and eventually "HiberCell came from taxi conversations," Aguirre-Ghiso says. "The reason I was interested in creating a company is I thought it was probably the fastest path to bring the benefit of our knowledge to the clinic," he says.