Avelas Bio Raises $7.65M to Advance Fluorescing Diagnostic for Cancer

Xconomy San Diego — 

San Diego’s Avelas Biosciences says today it has closed on $7.65 million in a Series A financing round—raised entirely from San Diego-based Avalon Ventures—to advance the use of fluorescing tags that change color in the presence of cancer cells. The technology, developed by the Nobel laureate Roger Tsien, is initially intended for use in fluorescence-guided surgeries.

The company has developed peptides that appear to glow blue in normal tissue, which have low protease activity, and red in metastatic tissue, where protease activity is high. When used in conjunction with a fluorescence-imaging camera during surgery, a color-coded image is superimposed onto the normal surgical view, providing the surgeon a map of cancer.

The tumor tissue just lights up,” says Avalon Ventures partner Jay Lichter, who also has been serving as the CEO at Avelas.

The company says the technology would first be applied in breast cancer surgeries, giving surgeons an immediate way to evaluate whether cancer cells have migrated from the primary tumor to nearby lymph nodes. With fluorescing peptides, surgeons could quickly distinguish cancerous lymph nodes from healthy tissue—enabling them to remove metastatic lymph nodes instead of waiting for the return of pathology results or scheduling a follow-up surgery.

Red Fluoresence in Cancer Cells

So far, the technology has “performed extremely well” in preclinical studies, Lichter said in a telephone interview late yesterday.

The fluorescing peptides were safe and quickly metabolized by rats in studies that showed very high diagnostic sensitivity and specificity for detecting multiple breast cancer metastases. The peptides also illuminated metastases in cultured human breast cancer tissue.

In the statement from Avelas, Lichter says, “With high surgical procedure costs and operating rooms costs coming in over $60 per minute, it is clear that advances that reduce a patient’s time in the OR are needed. A technology like the Avelas Cancer Illuminator (ACI) has the potential to accelerate the procedure for breast cancer surgery and reduce the number of times a patient is required to return to surgery to remove additional lymph nodes.”

Even in cases where intraoperative pathology is used, the company says the time needed to analyze lymph nodes potentially adds 40 minutes to the surgery.

As we’ve previously reported, Avelas (pronounced UH-vell-us) was founded in 2009 by Tsien, a UC San Diego professor of pharmacology, chemistry and biochemistry, and Avalon founder Kevin Kinsella. Tsien shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering and developing the green fluorescent protein, and showing how such fluorescing proteins could be used to chart gene expression and other functions inside living cells.

Proceeds of the funding would be used to advance development far enough to submit an investigational new drug application to the FDA, he added. The IND filing could be done within a few months, Lichter said.