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April 12, 2018
By Kayla Liederbach
Nivien Therapeutics: Cutting Through Cancer’s Shield

Cancer cells have defense mechanisms that can cause chemotherapy and other standard cancer treatments to become increasingly difficult for a patient to endure, as stronger drugs are often needed after the cancer cells adapt. Instead of killing cancer cells with stronger drugs, Nivien has a found a way to break down the defense mechanisms of cancer cells by first watching their response to drugs, and then designing small molecules that act against the specific defense mechanisms that the cancer cells are observed to be using. For this reason, Forbes recently called Nivien’s technology “The Trojan Horse of Cancer Treatment”. Nivien’s approach will allow existing drugs to become more effective. We asked the company’s co-founders, Nikita Shah and Nathaniel Brooks Horwitz, a few questions:

How did you become interested in biotech?

Nikita comes from a clinical perspective, preparing for medical school, working as an EMT, and shadowing oncologists. She also built a better preclinical model for testing small molecules (the same class of drug that Nivien is developing) in a biomedical research lab at Massachusetts General Hospital. Nathaniel worked in three biomedical research labs (Boston Children’s, Harvard Stem Cell Institute, Harvard Medical School) and at RA Capital, a biotech venture capital firm. We came together around a shared passion for translating important biomedical research into new medicines for patients.

When did you decide to start a company, and where did your team get together?

We began Nivien under the mentorship of Dr. Derrick Rossi, the scientific founder of Moderna. We decided to start the company when key academic discoveries converged around the importance of our target in cancer resistance. After raising initial venture funding, we recruited Dr. Ken Fang, a principal scientist from Allergan, and Dr. Dharmendra Singh, a veteran cancer biologist from UCLA, Houston Methodist and the NIH.

How does your technology work?

Rather than directly killing cancer cells, Nivien targets the shields that protect cancer from existing treatments. Nivien develops small molecules that inactivate the first upstream regulator of many proteins responsible for the failure of dozens of FDA-approved cancer treatments. We will combine Nivien molecules with existing drugs to create a better reformulated product that has higher effectiveness and lower side effects than current options.

What lessons did you learn transitioning from science to entrepreneurship at IndieBio?

We learned that science moves much faster at companies than in academia. We also learned to focus on doing “the killer experiment” at each step to prove or disprove a theory as quickly as possible, rather than spending time and money on auxiliary experiments that provide support but not clear answers.

How do you think your success as a company would change the medical industry?

Our mission is to dramatically improve the standard-of-care in cancer therapeutics.

What milestones are you aiming to hit in the near future?

We are filing key patents, establishing partnerships and hiring new team members to fill critical roles moving forward.

Watch Nivien Therapeutics pitch on IndieBio Demo Day, Tuesday, April 17th in San Francisco or via LiveStream. Register here!

Photo credit: IndieBio