Vera Moura, bombing cancer tumors with Treat U
31-year old Vera Moura knows that chemotherapy is a necessary evil. You need the chemicals to kill the tumors, but, unfortunately, those chemicals also create collateral damage. What if you could bomb only the targeted tumor without afflicting surrounding damage? What if you could simply and effectively deliver the chemical to the tumor site leaving no chemical trail to allow for unwanted side effects?
Meet Pegasemp, a nanoparticle drug delivery system that Vera and her colleagues invented at the University of Coimbra in Portugal. Pegasemp is named after Pegasus, Vera tells me: “Because it’s fast, it’s efficient, and it evades the immune system to get to the target.” The semp comes from sempre which, Vera tells me: “Means forever. Our Pegasemp is reliable, effective and it works.” Maybe she really can cure cancer?
I met Vera in May, 2011, and again in September, during my visits to Portugal as part of the Carnegie Mellon/Portugal Program and our participation in the University Technology Enterprise Network (UTEN) program. As described in my previous post, the purpose of my visits has been to give a series of seminars and workshops around entrepreneurship American-style, in particular on entrepreneurship and innovation at Carnegie Mellon. Through the CMU/Portugal Program, we started an EIR mentoring program to work with early-stage Portuguese companies that might benefit from our tutorship and possibly expand to the US.
Background. Vera has an academic background in pharmaceutical sciences. Even as a girl, Vera was always interested in science. In her last year of her undergraduate degree, she worked on using nanoparticles as a delivery mechanism for cancer treatment. After graduating, Vera went to work in a pharmacy but she kept thinking about her University project. Finally, she went to see her professor who started talking about using nanoparticles to deliver cancer treatment. Vera couldn’t pass up the opportunity to join. She tells me “I picked the project but really the project picked me!”
Vera entered a PhD program and worked on this project for the next five years. The last year of her research was all about commercialization because Vera realized that if she ever wanted to save people’s lives she had to get the technology from the lab into the marketplace.
No small feat for anyone, let alone a diminutive young scientist. But don’t let her good looks and charm fool you; Vera has the heart of a I-will-make-it-happen entrepreneur!
Vera and her professors realized there was a commercial opportunity because they were overwhelmed by the positive results of early tests: “We couldn’t sit by and let this sit in a lab,” Vera tells me. “The goal of every scientist is to see their innovation enter into the world to save lives. And I am going to do that.”
The problem. Vera’s technology has lots of applications. Why drug delivery? It starts with the magnitude of the problem in cancer treatment. Conventional chemo has problems – side effects. Chemo is introduced systemically into a body, and the distribution is chaotic. It is not uncommon to find the therapy accumulating in organs where the drug is not needed. And we all know about the adverse side effects of vomiting, hair loss, etc.
The solution. If you could design a strategy to deliver the drug only to the tumor you would produce low incidence of side effects and higher efficacy. And, if you could encapsulate the drug in something so small – a particle, for instance, that is 100 times smaller than a cell – then you have a tumor bomb on your hands. One that kills the tumor but doesn’t hurt the rest of the body.
Vera explains, “What we have discovered is a way to target the drug not only to the tumor cell, but to the tumor micro-environment. You can provide higher therapeutic efficacy because you are acting on the tumor at more than one level.”
She elaborates: “Our platform provides a stable particle which can travel in the bloodstream without releasing the drug. So, the drug is not lost in the blood stream or around the tumor but only inside the target cell. There it can release a massive amount of drug like a burst.”
In addition to targeting and killing the tumor, Vera claims, “We stop the blood supply to the tumor, so we first bomb it and then we starve it.” Am I hearing this right? Can we really stop cancer cells from metastasizing?
Plans. The Pegasemp is Treat U’s first platform. The company is focused on the treatment of solid tumors starting with breast cancer. But then the team plans to go into liquid tumors, like leukemia, tumors in the blood. That said, Vera is focused the enormity of the challenges immediately ahead.
Differentiator. Vera tells me, “We have advantages over what is in the market today and what is in clinical trials. How are they better? Vera is patient as she outlines two platforms that are similar to Pegasemp: Doxil (or Caelyx outside of the US). But Vera counters, “Doxil is not targeted. It is a drug delivery system that travels in the bloodstream like ours but it can accumulate outside the tumor.”
Another competitor is Celsion’s ThermoDox, which relies on an external heat source. But again, Vera tells me, “We don’t need heat. We combine three things: 1) Double targeting; 2) Intracellular delivery; and 3) Stability in the bloodstream.
Treat U has three patents pending and more to come.
Moving forward. Winning the Arrisca Coimbra competition in 2009 forced the team to think about business not just the science. That was the beginning of Treat U.
The project received some funding from the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT) during Vera’s PhD years. Then Bluepharma, a national pharmaceutical company stepped in as an industry partner and investor. The money was not a lot but it allowed the project to get to the next level. In July, 2010, the company won second place in I2P Idea to Product® Portugal Competition which gave them more credibility and a bit more cash.
In addition to Vera, who works in Treat U full-time, and the two professors, João Nuno Moreira and Sérgio Simões, who both work as consultants, the company recruited Luís Almeida and Amilcar Falcão who have expertise in clinical trials, pharmacodynamics, and other areas that are necessary to advance the platform through the regulatory process to gain approval to enter into clinical trials.
Next steps. Vera is driving the project forward to get into the market. She believes that she has all of the necessary resources for right now to move forward, but knows that she will need significant resources in the future. Which is why she became part of the CMU/Portugal EIR program.
Vera knows that she needs to test her Pegasemp platform in clinical trials. She has picked generic drugs to start with because these drugs are less risky, increasing the partnership opportunities.
She also needs scientific and industry partners. And she knows that the US may hold a better trough of potential partners than Portugal or even Europe. While Vera intends to stay in Portugal, she does not want to be limited.
If all goes according to plan, Treat U will have solutions for several therapeutic indications and several drugs. With more than one disease and more than one drug, an exit could be big.
Afterthoughts. The goal of our CMU/Portugal entrepreneurial and mentoring program is to instruct and inspire, to discuss and debate, to deliver suggestions as to how to connect the disparate dots into an entrepreneurial culture that drives innovation, change and economic growth in this vibrant European nation.
Most of my visits have encompassed much discussion of the differences and similarities of policies, attitudes and activities around innovation and entrepreneurship between the US and Portugal. Certainly entrepreneurship is further along in the US with its strong history of entrepreneurship and venture capital. Portugal is in its infancy in terms of entrepreneurship and new venture financing. And everyone that I meet there knows it.
In recent history, Portugal has been devoting significant resources to stimulating innovation and entrepreneurship, particularly within the University and incubator communities. As a result, the country is teeming with entrepreneurial verve – we see many impressive innovations that have clear commercial potential on an international scale.
But Portugal needs to recognize what they have and they need to tell the world.
Looking into the eyes of my eager New Venturist Portuguese entrepreneurs, I see the same glimmer of determination that I see on US New Venturists. These Portuguese first-time entrepreneurs are smart and educated; they are finding and exploiting opportunities, and they will not be stopped.
I place my money on Vera and her colleagues. And we will help you realize your dream!