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MD Anderson, Investment Firm Create Cancer Start-Up

Cancer in headline


11 January 2017. MD Anderson Cancer Center and health care investment enterprise Deerfield Management are starting a new company to develop treatments for cancer that tackle processes feeding tumor growth. The new company, called Vescor LLC, is founded by researchers from outside MD Anderson, but will use the cancer center’s lab facilities for drug discovery and development.

Vescor plans to develop new treatments for cancer that limit autophagy, the process of cell death and destruction, which in most circumstances is part of the overall cycle of new healthy cell formation. When cells are in stress — conditions where cells are deprived of nutrients or growth factors — autophagy increases. One of those conditions is solid tumor cancers, where autophagy increases to survive stress from the supporting micro-environment of tumors, often by scavenging nutrients to sustain their growth. Autophagy also supports the development of resistance to some conventional cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation.

One of Vescor’s scientific founders is Eileen White, a cancer researcher at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, who studies autophagy in cancer. “Nutrient scavenging by autophagy,” says White in a Deerfield and MD Anderson statement, “is a process that tumors hijack to meet their energetic requirements and to provide the necessary cellular building blocks for growth in a stressed tumor micro-environment. Preclinical models have demonstrated a critical role for autophagy in multiple cancer types.”

White is joined by Alec Kimmelman as a Vescor scientific founder. Kimmelman is chair of radiation oncology at New York University medical school, and also studies autophagy. As with White, Kimmelman has findings showing the role of autophagy in tumor growth. “There is a need,” he adds, “for potent and specific autophagy inhibitors to advance these important findings into clinical practice.”

To pursue that goal, Vescor plans to develop small molecule, or low-molecular weight, treatments that address proteins supporting autophagy at key points in the process. The company expects to conduct preclinical studies leading to investigational drug applications to FDA, and to prepare for clinical trials targeting melanoma, lung and pancreatic cancers.

While White and Kimmelman do their research at Rutgers and New York universities respectively, Vescor will use lab facilities at MD Anderson’s Institute for Applied Cancer Science in Houston to discover and develop these new therapies. The institute is expected to provide expertise in drug discovery and translational research, while Deerfield provides its managerial and operational experience. Deerfield Management is an investment company and philanthropy in New York specializing in health care.

MD Anderson and Deerfield say this model removes the need for Vescor to develop its own labs, and can allow the company’s researchers to devote all of their time to developing new treatments. Vescor aims to quickly prepare at least one treatment candidate for clinical trials in a “condensed time frame,” although no target dates were given.

No financial commitments were disclosed by either MD Anderson or Deerfield. Last week, as reported by Science & Enterprise, MD Anderson announced layoffs of 1,000 or more staff due to unexpected operating fund deficits in its clinical practice. Research and innovation projects, however, are normally funded from outside sources, such as research grants and venture capital.

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