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Northwestern Students Win Global Startup Contest

Team to launch startup for promising new personalized breast cancer treatment

CHICAGO --- A team of Northwestern University students won the business phase of the Breast Cancer Startup Challenge -- one of 10 winning teams chosen from around the world for the invention they selected. The students developed a winning business plan for a patented, personalized therapy that stimulates the immune system to fight breast cancer. 

Over the next four months the Northwestern team (six students from the Feinberg School of Medicine, Kellogg School of Management and Northwestern Law School) will launch their startup -- Orpheden Therapeutics -- and pursue a license for the invention.

Then, on June 27, they will have the opportunity to pitch their business plan to interested seed funders in New York with the potential of receiving $100,000 to $10 million to grow their startup. The funders have already committed to evaluate the new startups for seed funding.

The project is an entirely new business model to commercialize inventions from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that have been languishing on the shelves. Big pharmaceutical companies have little interest in taking risks in early-stage technologies. Startups have the ability to take more risk.

The challenge is a partnership between the Avon Foundation for Women, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) of the NIH and the Center for Advancing Innovation.

The investigational cancer therapy the Northwestern team selected was invented by Alan Krensky, M.D., a professor in pediatrics and microbiology-immunology, and Carol Clayberger, a professor in microbiology-immunology, both at the Feinberg School of Medicine. Krensky and Clayberger are husband and wife. Krensky also is the dean for development and alumni affairs at Feinberg and a member of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University.

The Krensky/Clayberger invention was one of only nine patented inventions chosen from 4,000 in the NCI’s portfolio to be available to any team wanting to develop a startup and business plan for the Breast Cancer Startup Challenge. (The 10th invention in the challenge was selected from the Avon Foundation grantee portfolio of more than 100 inventions.) All were judged to show great promise to advance breast cancer research.

The invention was chosen for its commercial viability, market attractiveness, medical and scientific merit, operational feasibility and ability to attract funding.

“Related therapies in use today don’t have the potency of this new approach and have limited success in improving patient outcomes,” said Daniel Levine, the chief operating officer of Orpheden and a PhD candidate at Feinberg. “We hope that this approach will eventually be a viable alternative to existing immunotherapies and anticipate it will be complementary to current chemotherapy regimens to improve patient outcomes.”

“There’s been a lot of hope that personalized cell therapies will be the future of medicine but no one has been able to crack that model,” said John Kuelper, the chief executive officer of Orpheden and a JD/MBA candidate from Kellogg and Northwestern law school. “We've come up with an innovative approach that leverages the inherent benefits of our technology to create a business model that's friendly to investors and a therapy that is easily adopted by physicians. If we’re successful, we may finally have a platform that can realize the promise of personalized medicine.”

The Northwestern interdisciplinary team also includes Mthabisi Moyo, a PhD candidate, and Jonathan Bell, an MD/PhD candidate, both from Feinberg as well as Ronald Mantel, an MBA candidate at Kellogg and Matthew Rosenstock, a JD/MBA candidate at Kellogg and the law school. The team was assembled with the guidance of the Innovation and New Ventures Office at Northwestern.

The therapy being examined uses the naturally-occurring protein granulysin to activate a specific type of immune cells to target and fight cancer while ignoring healthy cells. Immune cells are taken from a patient’s body, stimulated with granulysin, exposed to the patient’s tumor cells to aid in targeting and then reintroduced into the body to fight the cancer.

“The result of the process is an immune cell that is like a five-star general equipped with outstanding intel,” Levine said. “The five-star immune cell then is reintroduced to the body and rallies all of the other immune cells into a targeted and potent immune response against the cancer.”

This investigative approach has showed promising results in cell and animal research. The Northwestern team will be doing additional preclinical research to evaluate this therapy as a potential treatment option for underserved groups of cancer patients, which initially includes those with triple-negative breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Their goal is to launch a clinical trial for ovarian cancer in 2015.

“The startup challenge is a very exciting experiment to build teams and perhaps develop new cancer therapies,” Krensky said. “We hope the Northwestern team can attract resources to move this new therapy forward to impact patients.”   

Orpheden Therapeutics also has approached venture capitalists and investors with their business plan for extra funding support as well as commercialization guidance.

“Today, progress in breast cancer research depends on step-change advances in technology and on paradigm-shifting strategies to rapidly bring these advances to market so they can be used by scientists and physicians,” said Rosemarie Truman, founder and chief executive officer of the Center for Advancing Innovation.