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July 14, 2021
By Pae Wu
OncoPrecision: A matter of life and death – cancer avatars accelerate precision oncology

OncoPrecision can predict a patient’s response to cancer therapies by replicating the tumor microenvironment ex vivo. Their unique, triple co-culture method increases patient-derived cancer cell viability 60x in a 2.5D format that has been validated using real patient data.  For patients in dire need of the right cancer treatment the first time, OncoPrecision offers doctors the assurance that decisions made today will make the difference tomorrow.  When time is of the essence, being able to screen potential therapies with your personalized cancer avatar in under 10 days is fast.  Doing so with more accuracy than today’s sequencing or organoid approaches is huge. Through their growing list of strategic partnerships, OncoPrecision is screening, selecting, and speeding up the delivery of precision oncology.

What inspired you to start OncoPrecision?

Fighting cancer is the life purpose of OncoPrecision’s founders. As an academic spin-off, OncoPrecision follows the scientific journey of its CSO. Gaston Soria started working in cancer genetics during his MSc, which continued during his PhD training. After realizing that genetics was not sufficient to explain the complex behavior of cancer cells, he decided  to focus his postdoctoral training in the epigenetic field. Disappointed, and with the increasing conviction that every -omic only explains a single dimension of cancer, he founded a drug-discovery lab asking questions directly to the cancer cells.

He figured that cancer cells are the minimal unit that will provide us with reliable outputs for multidimensional phenoma, such as the response to anticancer agents. OncoPrecision originated as the evolution of cell-based screening technologies developed at Gaston’s Lab, but with its own fingerprint: working with cancer cells that directly derive from patients before therapy prescription. 

Why AML/ALL and how does your approach differ?

OncoPrecision’s MVP focuses on acute leukemias, with particular focus on AML. AML is a devastating disease, with about 50% of patients not responding to standard of therapies and with very common multi-resistant phenotypes. OncoPrecision’s technology can work with minimal biopsies, even utilizing the remaining pathological cells that are leftover from leukemia diagnosis samples. 

In other words, we work with the patients’ cells and combine them with two cell lines we’ve selected that enable us to replicate what’s going on in the tumor, so we can then analyze the response to different therapies. We decided to initially focus on AML because of its extremely high relapse rates and the challenge of patients responding favorably to the first line of treatment. AML also has the advantage of enabling us to use the patients’ blood for our analysis, rather than requiring invasive biopsies as other types of cancers might.

OncoPrecision’s novel triple co-culture system for assaying the effects of standard-of-care and experimental therapies alike.

In other words, we take patient-derived cancer cells, culture them to mimic the body’s environment, screen for the best treatment. AML is a difficult cancer to cure, with higher than average relapse rates, but easier for us to approach as our first target. 

What made you realize you could accelerate the screening and selection process for cancer therapeutics? 

There are ex-vivo functional tests, such as patient-derived xenograft in mice (growing a tumor in a lab mouse) and organoids, which have had remarkable success in pre-clinical settings. However, due to their high costs and extended length (up to several months), the translation of these technologies into clinical settings failed thus far.

Our approach uses patient-derived cancer cells that are immediately set for screening in a triple co-culture setup that we call 2.5D Micro Cancer Avatars. Our platform allows us to obtain actionable results within 7 to 10 days, which is remarkably faster than current approaches. This is possible due to our extreme miniaturization procedure, which does not require the amplification of cancer cells, yet retains the clonal heterogeneity found in all cancers.

You already have a 15-person team coming from Argentina, can you tell us more about the cast of characters at OncoPrecision?

One of our Team’s pillars is Candelaria (Cande pronounced “Candy”) who is our master of organization and perfectionism at the lab. She’s been recognized by the Ministry of Science and Technology as one of the emerging female leaders in science (she’s also a leader within our team). We also have Gerardo who has a network of clinicians in Argentina like no other. He’s been elemental in rapidly building our network of clinics that are participating in our studies. Gaston is another pillar of our Team who we like to call “The Professor” (he’s actually Tarek’s Oncology tutor) for his incredible mentorship to our senior and junior talent. We would be lost without his guidance. Finally, Tarek is our youngest founder and the CEO.  After selling his first company, this second-time founder has learned OncoPrecision’s science quickly and is great at communicating that science and the vision. 

We have a multidisciplinary team that includes biotechnologists, geneticists, immunologists, bioengineers, biochemists and medical scientific liaisons. Moreover, it is remarkable that a big part of our team had a shared scientific history. Our team leaders and medical scientific liaison manager have worked together in academia for more than 5 years, developing strong professional and personal bonds that set the ground of OncoPrecision’s culture. 

A fraction of the team at OncoPrecision

We’re thrilled by the scientific progress we’ve made in such a short time since we founded the company in September 2020. The truth is that we couldn’t have come this far without the deep scientific talent that’s available in Argentina, combined with the unbeatable cost advantages (the ratio of scientists we could hire with the same seniority there vs. the US is about 7:1).

What are your plans for clinical studies? 

We’re now raising our Seed Round to move rapidly towards proving out the predictive power of our platform in clinical studies for AML patients, as well as beginning proof-of-concept for adapting our technology to be able to work with solid tumors. We’re also in the process of taking our first steps towards building our New York Hub, which will be the core of our US operations.

Precision oncology is a tough space to break into, tell us a bit about your advisors. 

We’re very excited about the advisors who have joined our journey over the past few months, both on the Business and Clinical sides. As our Business Advisor, we have Darrin Crisitello who has a wealth of experience building and scaling precision medicine businesses. He’s currently the Chief Commercial Officer of Mission Bio, a leading Single-Cell Sequencing startup and previously held leadership roles building the businesses of Color Genomics as well as Natera. As our Medical Advisor, we have Jorge Solimano, MD who leads Hematology at CEMIC, one of Latin America’s top cancer centers. Dr. Solimano has been elemental in designing our clinical validation milestones, as well as bringing his collaboration expertise with pharmaceutical companies to some key conversations. We actually are in the process of adding our third advisor who we’re thrilled about. We can’t say too much about her yet, but she’s a world-leading expert in heme malignancies and has done a tremendous amount of work to advance research in the field, as well as practiced as a leading clinician. 

What’s your vision for OncoPrecision in the future? 

Our mission is to dramatically improve cancer patient outcomes and ensure that each patient receives the best possible therapy. We envision a world where NO patient is prescribed therapy before understanding how the patient will respond to therapy.