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Cancer Cell Therapy Biotech Launches, Raises $10M

Breast cancer cells, microscope image

Stained pathology image of breast cancer cells (National Cancer Institute, NIH)

11 Apr. 2023. A start-up company with a process for harvesting large quantities of cells that infiltrate and kill solid tumors is raising $10 million in seed venture funds. CTRL Therapeutics Inc. in Chicago, is spun off from biomedical engineering labs at Northwestern University, with the founders and colleagues demonstrating the technology in yesterday’s issue of the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering (paid subscription required).

The CTRL Therapeutics process is based on research by the company’s scientific founders Shana Kelley, an engineering and chemistry professor at Northwestern University’s medical school, and postdoctoral researcher Zongjie (Daniel ) Wang in the Kelley lab. Kelley, Wang, and colleagues are seeking techniques to collect lymphocyte cells, white blood cells in the immune system, that can infiltrate and destroy solid tumors, such as in breast or lung cancer. These tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes are produced by the tumors, but are often blocked by immune checkpoint signals from the tumors, and the tumor microenvironment.

Experimental therapies with this technique up to now capture a small number of tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte cells in a patient’s blood, then expand and engineer the cells in the lab to produce a sufficient number of effective cells to attack solid tumors. While early clinical trials report encouraging results from tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes, also called tumor-reactive lymphocytes, the process is slow, labor-intensive, and expensive. And in the case of people with tumors that cannot be surgically removed or continue to metastasize, the process is not feasible.

Tests with lab mice induced with tumors

The Kelley lab studies techniques to make harvesting of tumor-reactive lymphocytes more practical when the cells circulate in the blood stream. These methods for identifying, capturing, and collecting circulating tumor-reactive lymphocytes, or CTRLs, make up the CTRL Therapeutics technology. That process uses microfluidics, or lab-on-a-chip, devices with magnetic nanoscale particles combined with synthetic antibodies designed to attract characteristic proteins found on the CTRL cell surface. The competing magnetic and fluid-drag forces help sort-out the target cells, enabling the harvesting of many times more lymphocyte cells with therapeutic potential.

In a paper published in Jan. 2022, Kelley and colleagues demonstrate the technology with blood samples in the lab. In the new paper, the researchers show results of tests with lab mice induced with tumors under the skin, where CTRLs with specific cell surface biomarkers are isolated and found to respond to immune checkpoint blockades from the mice tumors. The team also found CTRLs from cancer patient blood samples can be enriched with receptor proteins for cancer-fighting T-cells that overlap with patients’ own tumor-infiltrating cells.

CTRL Therapeutics started-up last year to commercialize the Kelley Lab process. The company is now raising $10 million in seed funds led by multi-technology investor General Catalyst in San Francisco, with Intermountain Health, FACIT, and others taking part in the round.

“The field of cell therapy,” says Kelley, the company’s chief technology officer in a CTRL Therapeutics statement, “has been limited by the lack of tools to isolate and expand tumor-reactive cells that are efficacious against solid tumors. This funding enables further optimization and validation of our proprietary technology platform and expansion of our team to support our mission to deliver curative therapies for all individuals living with cancer.”

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