A promising venture that hopes to develop a new drug therapy for colorectal cancer won $50,000 in funding and recognition from experienced venture capitalists on May 26 at the annual Biomedical Business Plan Challenge.
The venture, Culnexin Therapeutics, is based on the work of Dr. Pengbo Zhou, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. Dr. Zhou is an expert on tiny enzymes called ubiquitin ligases, key components of a complex cellular housekeeping system that destroys proteins to keep their levels within normal limits. Dr. Zhou and his laboratory have uncovered evidence that a ubiquitin ligase called CUL4 regulates proteins that are particularly important in blocking cancers. The scientists have shown that cancers often get their start, or boost their growth, by upregulating CUL4—thus pushing down the levels of the anticancer proteins it regulates. By the same token, blocking CUL4 prevents tumor formation, or slows tumor growth, in multiple experimental settings.
For the past several years, Dr. Zhou, collaborating with Dr. Suman Lal, entrepreneur-in-residence at Weill Cornell Medicine’s BioVenture eLab, has been trying to turn his findings into a powerful new drug therapy for colorectal cancer, which remains one of the leading causes of cancer deaths. On May 26, their efforts were rewarded when their CUL4 project beat seven others to win the $50,000 first prize in Weill Cornell Medicine’s Biomedical Business Plan Challenge.
“This win is a nice validation of our technology, its potential to impact the lives of cancer patients, and of course its value as an investment opportunity,” Dr. Zhou said.
The annual Biomedical Business Plan Challenge, initiated in 2017, is meant to provide helpful funds for promising translational medicine startups and showcase the eLab’s work in incubating bench-to-bedside ventures. Led by Dr. Jahanara Ali, the eLab’s central mission is to connect Weill Cornell Medicine researchers with experienced entrepreneur-mentors who can guide the researchers on the epic and multifariously difficult journey from basic lab experiments through preclinical testing and into human clinical trials. This journey typically requires, among other challenges, convincing professional biotech investors to put up tens to hundreds of millions of dollars in funding.
“We are inspired every day to work with such talented, entrepreneurial colleagues, and we eagerly contribute our relevant curriculum and expertise on the journey to launching their startups,” said Loren Busby, a former life sciences venture capitalist who is one of the eLab’s entrepreneurs-in-residence.
The eLab was launched and is overseen by Weill Cornell’s Office of BioPharma Alliances and Research Collaborations, led by Managing Director Larry Schlossman. While other universities have programs designed to assist its faculty to form and spin off new companies to commercialize their research, eLab is unique for its specific laser focus on biomedical research.
“eLab is dedicated 100 percent to helping our scientists develop both the unique skill set and the mindset required for biomedical entrepreneurship, and to our knowledge it’s one of a very few with that tight biomedical focus,” Schlossman said.
Both eLab and BioPharma Alliances and Research Collaborations are part of Weill Cornell Medicine’s Enterprise Innovation, which provides end-to-end biotech and business development to Weill Cornell Medicine faculty and trainees from inception to commercialization.
The eight teams for this year’s challenge underwent nine weeks of mentoring, in which they learned about regulatory requirements for new drugs, typical costs of startup ventures, and how to pitch to investors. For the challenge, held in-person at Weill Cornell Medicine’s Griffis Faculty Club and via-Zoom audience, they made their 7-minute pitches before a judging panel of early-stage bioventure investors, including representatives from 2048 Ventures, Orbimed, Qiming Ventures, Bios Partners, Alexandria LaunchLabs, and Mission BioCapital.
Although the investor-judges awarded first prize to Drs. Zhou and Lal’s venture, they found two other projects worthy of recognition—and $25,000 each in funding—as runners-up.
The first of these, CARma Therapeutics, is a venture led by Dr. Nir Ben-Chetrit, research associate, and Dr. Dan Landau, an associate professor of medicine, both in the Division of Hematology and Medical Oncology. CARma’s aim is to develop therapies to reprogram tumor-associated macrophages, immune cells that are subverted by many tumors and help suppress local antitumor immune attacks. Without the cover provided by these cellular henchmen, tumors would be much more vulnerable to immune and other therapies—indeed, the scientists hope to reprogram tumor-associated macrophages not merely to cease their protection of tumors but to actively attack those tumors.
The other runner-up project, under a company called Mission-Driven Tech, is led by entrepreneur Eve McDavid and Dr. Onyinye D. Balogun, an assistant professor of radiation oncology at Weill Cornell Medicine. McDavid, a cervical cancer survivor and former Google executive, is also Dr. Balogun’s former patient, and their goal in this venture is to develop and market a better device for delivering radiation internally to cervical tumors. Brachytherapy, as this form of radiotherapy is called, is a common part of cervical cancer treatment. Mission-Driven Tech’s device is meant to improve patient comfort and reduce potentially costly side-effects—and possibly even boost brachytherapy’s potency.
The five remaining projects all seem highly promising and included efforts against multiple sclerosis and fatty liver disease, better platforms for research and drug discovery, and a system for improving communication between families and severely ill/isolated patients.
The first-prize winners, Drs. Zhou and Lal, plan to use the prize money to perform preclinical studies of the toxicity, bloodstream half-life, and other relevant properties of the small-molecule CUL4 inhibitors they are developing. If all goes well, they expect to start an initial small trial of a CUL4 inhibitor in human subjects in the next several years. And if their CUL4 inhibitor proves successful clinically, then in principle it could be used also against breast, lung, ovarian and other cancers—which often support themselves by upregulating CUL4.
“We’re currently in discussions with potential investors; we’re making progress by conducting key de-risking experiments; and we’re further expanding our team with drug development expertise,” Dr. Lal said.
Many Weill Cornell Medicine physicians and scientists maintain relationships and collaborate with external organizations to foster scientific innovation and provide expert guidance. The institution makes these disclosures public to ensure transparency. For this information, see Dr. Pengbo Zhou’s profile.