Brown U. and Johns Hopkins Researchers Form Sentient Bioscience to Improve Liver Cancer Treatment

Xconomy Boston — 

Most people diagnosed with liver cancer are unlikely to live more than a few years, so there’s plenty of room for new innovative treatments. That’s why Tim Murphy, an interventional radiologist at Rhode Island Hospital and his colleagues at Brown University and Johns Hopkins University have formed Providence, RI-based Sentient Bioscience to develop treatments that will hopefully extend the lives of liver cancer patients.

Sentient revealed last week that it raised its first $250,000 in financing from the Slater Technology Fund, a Providence venture firm, supported by the state government, that invests in startups in the Ocean State. The biotech firm plans to develop embolization therapies that block the vital blood supply to liver tumors and deliver chemotherapy to treat the cancer, according to Murphy.

About 22,600 new cases of liver cancer are diagnosed each year in the U.S., and 18,000 people die from it, according to the American Cancer Society. Patients haven’t had many new options until the past couple years, when clinical trials have shown some encouraging results for patients who take Bayer and Onyx Pharmaceuticals’ sorafenib (Nexavar) or Pfizer’s sunitinib (Sutent)—both of which are designed to work partly by blocking the formation of new blood vessels that feed tumors.

Sentient isn’t giving away many details yet about how its embolization treatments will work, making it difficult to draw comparisons to existing tumor embolization therapies offered by Rockland, MA-based BioSphere Medical (NASDAQ:BSMD) and Biocompatibles, headquartered in the U.K. However, we do know that existing embolization therapies for liver cancer such as BioSphere’s product called HepaSphere Microspheres involves the delivery of polymer particles that are supposed to interfere with blood flow through the main artery that supplies the liver. The embolic particles can also carry chemotherapy drugs.

Sentient is developing its own polymer particles, which it plans to use to deliver anti-cancer drugs or work in combination with such treatments. Murphy explained that the firm intends to develop an embolization therapy that improves on existing treatments, but he declined to say exactly how the startup plans to do this. Yet he noted that his firm’s research could lead to a better treatment for deadly “secondary” liver cancers that are caused by cancers that spread to the liver from other organs in the body and are difficult to treat effectively with current embolization therapies, he added.

The other founding researchers behind this cause include Edith Mathiowitz, a professor of medical sciences and engineering at Brown and former member of prolific MIT inventor Bob Langer’s lab, and Jean-Francois Geschwind, a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. Mathiowitz is also a co-founder of former Brown biotech spin-out Spherics, which managed to raise more than $50 million after launching in the late-1990s before it fizzled out in recent years because of financial problems.

Murphy, who is acting president of Sentient, says the three scientific co-founders bring an effective combination of clinical and research expertise to the young operation. “We’re starting on the side of clinicians who understand the problems very well and are looking to develop the technology that suits those problems,” Murphy said. “I think in a lot of cases companies are founded based on technology that is novel, and then seeks to fit in with a problem.”

Rich Horan, senior managing director of Slater, said that the current market for cancer embolization therapies is young and has potential for significant growth. BioSphere, which sells embolization treatments for cancerous and non-cancerous tumors, reported 2008 revenue of $28.8 million. Exact figures on the size of the embolization therapy market for liver cancer are hard to come by, however. Sentient is now hunting for additional investors, Murphy said, and the startup would like to raise $2 million in a Series A round of financing. For now, the firm has yet to hire its first full-time employee and plans to recruit a senior management team to lead the operation. Murphy said he doesn’t plan to become a full-time executive for the startup.