Apr 12, 2018
By Kayla Liederbach
Onconetics: Genomics-Informed Drug Design

Science is catching up with cancer. We are in a new era of personalized medicine for diagnosing and treating patients, now zooming in even closer, on an individual’s genome. By understanding the genetic causes of cancer, and measuring the differences between someone’s cells that are affected by cancer with the ones that are not, Onconetics can leverage the regulatory network of the cells and create a trigger for a kill gene that only activates within cancer cells. We asked Gabe Hitchcock, the company’s COO and co-founder, some questions about how this all works:

How did you become interested in biotech?

GH: Luke and I became interested in biotech through our own channels, him through his father at UCSF and me through my own undergraduate research in neuropharmacology. Though we had different beginnings, our journeys led us to the same question: how do we make better drugs for patients? Luke and I strongly believe that the key to better treatment lies in the patient’s own genes.

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

GH: After months of deliberation, we started the company in the fall of 2016. For the first six months of the company, I was finishing up my B.S. at Oberlin College in Ohio, so I would fly out of Cleveland on weekends to meet Luke in San Francisco, Washington D..C, or New York as we built the company and our network.

How does your technology work?

GH: Our technology is predicated on the understanding that genetics determine the advent and progression of cancer. The hypothesis was simple: what if we could use these unique biomarkers not only to diagnose cancer, but also to guide the development of our drug? In essence, to create a drug that works only within the genetic environment of our choice. This is exactly what we have done at IndieBio: we have engineered a drug that selectively kills cancer cells without impacting healthy tissue. We call this approach Genomics-Informed Drug Design and we see it as the future of medicine.

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

GH: Science is a highly iterative process. Ideally, one experiment tells you one thing that informs the next experiment… and on and on and on. When we first started out as entrepreneurs, we applied the same approach. We absorbed all the feedback we could in one go, went back to the lab and restructured, then did it again. However, the same perfectionist approach used in R&D does not always bear fruit in entrepreneurship. It’s easy to get lost in the details and caught in a cycle of endless restructuring. IndieBio helped us hone in on what really mattered: our story, our community, and getting out there. In a sentence, IndieBio helped us get out of the lab and into the Valley.

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

GH: There’s no point hiding it: what we’re doing is entirely new and disruptive. The success of our company will cause a fundamental shift in the way the medical community treats patients. We’re not screening a single molecule against 1,000 cell lines to see what sticks, nor are we tweaking a chemical a 1,000 different ways to best block a pathway. What we are doing is engineering a drug from the ground up to target cancer. In 15 years, Genomics-Informed Drug Design will be the standard of medical treatment.

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

GH: In the near term we are planning on transitioning into our own lab space in the Bay Area, making key hires, and moving our therapy closer to IND. Because we are taking a bioengineering approach to medicine, there is also a lot of optimization that needs to be done. This means long hours in the lab, but each new experiment brings us that much closer to the ultimate goal: an accessible, scalable cure for cancer.

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