Avelas Biosciences, Startup from UCSD Nobel Laureate, Seeks to Spot and Bomb Tumors

Xconomy San Diego — 

Roger Tsien, the UC San Diego professor who won the 2008 Nobel Prize for chemistry, has spent his career creating ways to help scientists look inside living cells, using fluorescent molecular tags that only bind to certain structures. Now his vision is to apply some of what he’s learned to help surgeons remove tumors by creating vivid color differences between a tumor and healthy tissue, and a technique to make more potent “smart bomb” cancer drugs.

The company founded to develop these technologies from the Tsien lab at UCSD is called Avelas Biosciences (pronounced UH-vell-us). It got started about a year ago with an undisclosed amount of seed capital from San Diego-based Avalon Ventures. Tsien and Kinsella go way back to the mid-90s, when they joined forces to start Aurora Biosciences, the company that eventually sold for almost $600 million to Vertex Pharmaceuticals in 2001. I heard about the new vision for Avelas a couple weeks ago during a visit with Tsien in his office at UCSD.

The basic idea is to hit cancer cells in a new way. Avelas makes peptide substrate molecules that are sort of like Legos that can be attached to whatever the scientist wants—an MRI contrast agent, a fluorescent tag, or a potent cell-killing agent. The peptides can be designed to latch specifically onto enzymes that are active in tumors, and if there’s a tag attached, it can provide a vivid image for a surgeon who’s trying to completely cut out a tumor without hitting any nearby nerve tissue, Tsien says.

And that’s just the start of how this might be useful. Tsien, and the co-founders of Avelas, are thinking hard about using this new platform of peptide substrates to also make cancer drugs. Today’s antibody drugs are usually made to hit a specific receptor on the surface of cancer cells, fitting like a key into a lock. Tsien referred to this as a “1 to 1” binding reaction, in which one drug molecule hits one target on cells. Instead, the Avelas peptides are aimed at hyperactive enzymes that make tumors go. The enzyme takes apart the peptide and its toxic cell-killing payload, and the enzyme repeats the process over and over again, creating an amplified anti-tumor effect, Tsien says.

Roger Tsien

Roger Tsien

If proven out in clinical trials, this notion could translate into lower doses, fewer side effects, and more efficient tumor-killing punch.

“This is a new targeting mechanism,” Tsien says. “I put it up there on the level with antibodies.”

This idea has been progressing in Tsien’s lab for the last six or seven years, and its commercial potential became clear about two years ago, he says. Once Kinsella became convinced it was time to spin this idea out into a company, two key people were brought aboard. Paul Finnegan, a former executive with Paramount BioCapital and Alexion Pharmaceuticals, was brought in as CEO because he had experience in both imaging and drug development. Tito Gonzalez, a former postdoc in Tsien’s lab and a veteran of Aurora and Vertex, signed on as vice president of R&D.

Like any company founded in a downturn, Avelas is under pressure to produce some commercially valuable results, sooner rather than later. So that’s why it is focusing first … Next Page »

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