Dunedin startup Amaroq Therapeutics has raised $14m to develop a technology it hopes will lead to "next-generation" drugs to treat breast, colorectal and liver cancer - and which could help resensitise patients who have developed a resistance to chemotherapy.
The money came mainly from a seed investment round by Melbourne-based venture capital firm Brandon Partners, via its Medical Research Commercialisation Fund (and supported by Otago Innovation, Otago University, Cure Kids, and NZ Innovation Booster) but also included a $700,000 repayable grant from Crown agency Callaghan Innovation.
The firm, spun out of the University of Otago, is developing what it calls one of the world's most advanced programmes in next-generation RNA therapy to target cancer - building on research carried out by its founder and chief scientific officer Dr Sarah Diermeier - a lecturer and Assistant Professor at Otago who gained a PhD in molecular biology and genomics.
Diermeier and her team of three, plus various students roped in to help with research, will be working on therapies to treat common cancers such as breast, colorectal and liver cancer.
"We hope that our new treatments will significantly improve survival rates for cancer patients and are able to address issues such as resistance to chemotherapeutics," the CSO says.
She says a timeline is hard to gauge at this point, but hopes drugs based on Amaroq's work could go into phase 1 clinical trials within a couple of years, and that US Food and Drug Administration approval is possible in around five years.
Duncan Mackintosh, who heads Brandon Capital's NZ operation, says it's possible that the (completely unrelated) Covid could lead to a general acceleration in the usually years-long FDA approval process (which typically sets the scene for approval in other countries).
"We saw how fast the vaccines were developed and approved. So we hope we can increase the pace of the process, fingers crossed. But time will tell."
Diermeier says her startup is primarily looking to create specific drugs. But its work could also lead to the creation of a "drug discovery platform" that could also be used by others working in the same area.
Her study centres on long non-coding RNAs (lncRNAs), often referred to as "dark matter" of the genome. The molecules, naturally present in cells, act as key cell regulators and have become one of the hottest areas of research globally, Diermeier says.
The emergence of new sequencing technologies has provided the opportunity to research these molecules further with significant investments being made globally into companies focusing on this area she ads.
Diermeier and her team are pioneering use of lncRNA molecules as therapeutic targets and diagnostic markers in the treatment of cancer.
"Through exploring patient data, our research has shown that specific lncRNA molecules are highly expressed in cancer cells but not normal healthy cells. Removing these lncRNA molecules from cancer cells can slow down the process of the cells dividing. This gives us real hope that lncRNA molecules could hold the key for treating many forms of common cancer," she says.
Diermeier has extensive experience in the study of lncRNA, having carried out her post-doctoral studies under Professor David Spector, an expert in lncRNA research, at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York.
She has also has worked alongside pioneers in the non-coding RNA space globally which led to Amaroq's research into utilising lncRNA in the oncology space. The study is one of the most advanced studies based on patient data in the pipeline in the world, and one of the first commercial approaches to target lncRNAs in the context of cancer.
"We have a world-class team working at the very cutting edge of an emerging therapeutic area, and that's why we are excited to lead this investment," Mackintosh says.
"Knowing that there are very few companies exploring lncRNA for oncology purposes makes this an exciting opportunity and the fact that it could prove helpful in the fight against cancer, a disease area affecting so many, is compelling."
Diermeier adds, "We hope that our new treatments will significantly improve survival rates for cancer patients and are able to address issues such as resistance to chemotherapeutics. In the first instance, we focus on treating cancers with a high unmet clinical need such as breast, colorectal and liver cancers, which are major health concerns in New Zealand."
Amaroq Therapeutics was created with the support of Otago Innovation - Otago University's commercialisation arm.
Otago Innovation CEO David Christensen says, "Through Amaroq, Dr Diermeier and her team has the potential to revolutionise the approach to cancer treatment and Otago Innovation is glad to support this project to reach its full potential."