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Microsoft, Biotech Partner on Metastatic Cancer

Lung cancer illustration


6 Apr. 2021. A biotechnology start-up is collaborating with Microsoft Corp. on computational tools to find and predict factors that cause cancers to spread. Volastra Therapeutics in New York, spun-off from labs at Weill Cornell Medical Center studying molecular processes responsible for cancer, is also adding $32 million to its seed financing.

Volastra Therapeutics, which began operating last year, develops therapies seeking to block the spread of cancer from the initial tumor to other parts of the body, called metastasis. The company’s technology is based on research on unstable chromosomes that contribute to metastatic cancer. Chromosomal instability encourages errors in cell division, with fragments of chromosomes transported outside the nucleus of cells, where chromosomes usually reside. These fragments can easily break open in cells, exposing their genetic contents to cell fluids. The exposed genes then trigger a process that encourages the spread of cancer cells, while blocking the immune system from detecting the condition.

Volastra designs therapies to block this process first with informatics to identify cancers most likely to express high levels of unstable chromosomes leading to cancer spread. The company says it uses a range of computational processes, including artificial intelligence and imaging techniques, to discover therapeutic targets. Volastra says it also employs metastatic tumor organoids, lab-grown tissue from cancer cells, to test prospective therapies, which the company says returns results faster than tests with lab animals.

Develop machine-learning algorithms

The company’s technology is derived from research at Weill Cornell in New York by its scientific founders Lewis Cantley, Samuel Bakhoum, and Olivier Elemento. Bakhoum, now at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, conducted the original studies on chromosomal instability, or CIN, while a researcher in Cantley’s cancer biology lab. Elemento’s lab studies big data analytics and mathematical models for therapies. The three researchers and colleagues outlined their techniques in a paper published in the journal Nature in Jan. 2018.

The company’s collaboration with Microsoft aims to develop artificial intelligence algorithms that identify biomarkers or molecular indicators associated with metastatic cancer. These algorithms would then be extended into predictive machine-learning tools that integrate insights from multiple data sets, pathology images, and results of tests on organoids. Financial aspects of the agreement are not disclosed.

Volastra Therapeutics is also raising another $32 million in seed funds, added to the company’s original $12 million raise in February 2020, according to CrunchBase. The company was formed by life science venture capital company Polaris Partners in Boston, with the other first seed funders Droia Ventures, ARCH Venture Partners, and Quark Venture. Vida Ventures, also in Boston, led the second stage of seed funding with new investor Catalio Capital, and Volastra’s current investors.

“In just over a year,” says Cantley in a Volastra statement, “the Volastra team has shepherded this science into the next stage of development, building technologies to identify CIN at scale and developing novel compounds to block metastasis. By leveraging these unique insights into CIN, we are one step closer to unlocking new therapeutic options for some of the toughest-to-treat solid tumors.”

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