Pancreatic cancer. Just hearing those words produces a chilling feeling of dread.
It is among the most deadly and difficult to treat cancers, in part because it forms dense tumors protected by an outer suit of armor called a stroma.
Song Li, professor of pharmaceutical science and Director of the Center for Pharmacogenetics for the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy, has dedicated his career to creating nanoparticle drug delivery systems.
He has shown in mice models of pancreatic cancer that a nanoparticle polymer created in his lab can effectively deliver a larger therapeutic payload that penetrates the stroma more effectively than standard delivery mechanisms. He and three co-founders formed a company, Duo Oncology, around the technology and licensed it from the University.
“In dense, stroma-rich tumors, it is exceedingly difficult for chemically diverse drugs to reach and act in tandem on cancer cells,” Dr. Li said in a statement. “Duo Oncology is redefining this known limitation with novel polymers that formulate diverse drugs into ultra-small nanoparticles.”
The discovery has caught the attention of Dr. Stanley Marks, Professor of Medicine and Chairman of the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. Marks is leading a group of UPMC oncologists frustrated with the intractability of pancreatic cancer in a $1 million seed investment in Duo Oncology.
“Drug therapy remains a cornerstone of care for cancer patients and we believe better therapies capable of overcoming resistant malignancies will shape the future of cancer medicine,” Marks said in a statement.
The company recruited Sam Rothstein, CEO of another Pitt startup, Qrono, which is preparing to enter a clinical trial for its own cancer therapy, as its interim CEO to get it up and running.
“Sam’s arrival on the scene was the missing piece of the puzzle that pulled it all together,” said Steve Thorne, another of Duo’s co-founders, who also is chief scientific officer of a pair of Pitt startups that he founded: Western Oncolytics and Kalivir Immunotherapeutics.
Thorne said he had collaborated on research with Dr. Li prior to launching his own companies, and had a chance encounter a few years ago with the fourth and final Duo co-founder, UPMC oncologist Jing-Zhou Hou, who shared Thorne’s excitement about Dr. Li’s research.
Rothstein entered Duo Oncology in the LifeX Labs accelerator program upon taking the reins to begin fleshing out the company’s structure and go-to-market strategy.
“A startup is not a solo sport,” he said. “LifeX makes sure we do our due diligence on ourselves, providing us the resources to check our assumptions and make sure our timelines are realistic.”
The company is now in the LifeX incubator program where it continues preparations for an Investigational New Drug (IND) application to the Food and Drug Administration, which is the final milestone before starting to treat patients in a clinical trial.
Duo’s lead product combines two standard chemotherapy agents into a single tumor-penetrating nanoparticle.
“Many cancer therapies consist of two-drug cocktails,” Rothstein said. “Combinations unlock synergies that provide more effective cancer therapy. That’s what we’re hoping to achieve, and Dr. Li’s polymer technology, as far as we know, is the only method for doing so for pancreatic tumors.”
Future trials could include combinations with state-of-the-art immunotherapies, called checkpoint inhibitors. The company may also target other difficult cancers, such as ovarian, lung and breast cancers.