Heather Franklin had a lot to think about in September 2010. She was a senior vice president at Seattle-based ZymoGenetics, when it agreed to be acquired by Bristol-Myers Squibb for $885 million. Now that the big company was calling the shots, it was time to think about a new move in her career.
Jim Olson, a physician/scientist/entrepreneur at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, sensed opportunity. Franklin’s name kept popping up at local industry events, when he asked people about the best candidates in town to become biotech CEOs. So he started bending her ear over the phone the day of the Zymo-Bristol announcement, September 7, 2010. The message: Here’s a great new technology that can help cancer patients, which needs a seasoned executive like you to help develop it.
“I quizzed him really hard,” Franklin recalls. “I said ‘It’s 2010, and here’s a paper from 2007. What’s happened since 2007?’ He described work that had been done to take something from a research project and really shape it for further development. After seeing Jim’s enthusiasm and vision, I told him I was enthusiastic about it, but needed to kick the tires.”
Olson, who also founded Seattle-based Presage Biosciences, says he was impressed. “When we met two days later, within 10 minutes I knew that this was the person who was best suited to advance Tumor Paint to help cancer patients,” Olson says.
Those original meetings in the fall of 2010 have culminated in a new Seattle biotech company called Blaze Bioscience. Franklin, the former senior vice president of business development at ZymoGenetics, is the CEO. She’s joined by two longtime colleagues from her Zymo days—Julia Novak as the vice president of research and project management, and Mila Lobanova, the vice president of finance and operations. The company has raised its first $725,000 in angel financing, and has an exclusive worldwide license to technology from Olson’s lab at the Hutch.
The big idea for the company is to apply molecular “paint” to tumors, to help surgeons clearly see the difference between cancerous and healthy tissues. Currently there’s no way for a surgeon to see in real time during an operation whether he or she has completely cut out a tumor. Physicians today use MRI scans, after a patient has been sewn up, to check to make sure they got the whole tumor out.
Blaze is seeking to go a step further, helping surgeons get a much better idea if whether they have truly gotten rid of the tumor while the operation is ongoing—which is critical in order to help avoid a relapse. It’s made to work by using a peptide molecule that’s attached to a fluorescent molecule. When a surgeon directs a camera and near infrared light into the surgical site, this should provide a clear picture of what tissue is cancerous, and what’s not. After the tumor is removed, the surgeon takes another look with the camera to see if any straggler cancer cells are left behind.
Olson’s lab has tested this concept in mice, and it will still require another 18 to 24 months of development work before it can go into clinical trials, Franklin says. But Blaze has already settled on a strategy for how to best apply this in the clinic, in patients undergoing surgery to remove brain tumors. Partly because the brain is such sensitive territory where surgeons try to tread very carefully, about 80 percent of brain cancers end up recurring around the edges, meaning there was probably some tumor left behind in the original surgery. But if the Blaze concept works with brain cancers, the technology should extend to other solid-tumor forms of cancer, like those of the lung, prostate, breast, pancreas, and colon, Franklin says.
“The tumor paint is going to allow surgeons to see whether they’ve gotten complete resection of tumors in real-time,” Franklin says.
Blaze isn’t the only startup with ideas for helping surgeons tell the difference between healthy and cancerous tissue. San Diego-based Avelas Biosciences, founded by Nobel laureate Roger Tsien and backed by Avalon Ventures, described its strategy to Xconomy back in April 2010. Like Blaze, the company was said to be developing peptides that are designed to bind with certain enzymes in tumors. The Avelas peptides are made to carry fluorescent tags, which a surgeon sees when shining a light into the tissues.
“The major difference is that extensive pre-clinical studies indicate that Tumor Paint works for many types of solid tumors, not just one or two,” Olson says. “Furthermore, we observed that Tumor Paint could detect as few as a few hundred cancer cells traveling from one lymph node to another, indicating the level of sensitivity that is desired by surgeons and patients.”
Franklin says she did a lot of digging on the Blaze technology before she decided to take the plunge. She could have taken on a business development role at another biotech company, after clinching a number of deals at ZymoGenetics. But she says she spent the last couple years at Zymo branching beyond her business development role, and working more closely with CEO Doug Williams on long-range strategic planning. It was that kind of strategic planning that was clearly necessary to make a company like Blaze take off, and something that got her excited.
Since there aren’t very many biotech companies being founded in the downtrodden economy of 2011, the opportunities have to be especially promising to attract financing and management talent. That’s the bet Franklin, Novak, and Lobanova are making.
“It says a lot about the technology that people have been willing to provide us with some funding to get going. It’s very exciting, and we’re getting ready to go forward.”
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