Seattle startup SEngine Precision Medicine has raised $10 million to propel drug discovery and development and advance its test that tailors drugs to cancer patients.
SEngine cultures patient cancer cells from a biopsy or other material and measures the response to an array of potential therapies using data analytics and computational tools.
The company’s “Paris Test” is designed to assess up to 44 drugs tailored to the cancer type and its genetic features. Oncologists can also request a drug combination study based on the results or order testing of additional drugs. The company has more than 240 candidates in its drug library, covering a broad range of molecular targets.
The Paris Test goes beyond the DNA tests that are increasingly being used by oncologists. Such genomic tests can help identify treatments for 5 to 20% of tumors, depending on cancer type, said SEngine CEO Carla Grandori. But SEngine offers a more direct approach to assessing which drugs are likely to work.
About 75% of Paris Tests yield a drug that the company labels as having an exceptional or good response in cultured cells, said Grandori. It’s designed to work on all types of solid tumors, from breast cancer to pancreatic.
“Just empirically testing a broad range of drugs, we can generally find a solution for a patient,” said Grandori, a former principal investigator at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center who co-founded the company in 2015. The startup has ongoing collaborations with Fred Hutch, Dana Farber Cancer Institute and others to assess the test.
One aim is to generate data showing the value and effectiveness of the test for insurance companies. About 800 patients have received the test so far, primarily people who were not responding to conventional treatment options.
SEngine also leverages the approach to identify new drug candidates. Its model is to take candidates through early testing and regulatory hurdles, licensing them when they are ready for phase 1 clinical trials. The company aims to ready its first candidate next year for a trial.
Several biopharma companies also partnering with SEngine in ongoing drug discovery and development efforts.
Other startups with similar approaches include Duke University spinout Xilis, developing “microorganosphere” tests derived from patient tumors. Kiyatec offers clinical testing for certain brain tumors based on patient cells, and Notable Labs focuses mainly on predicting therapies for blood cancers.
SEngine assesses a more comprehensive array of drugs and tumor types, said Grandori.
The company has grown from 20 to 30 employees this year and recently launched a clinical trial through the Institute Gustave-Roussy in Paris in patients with colorectal cancer resistant to conventional treatment or with tumor recurrence.
SEngine will use the new cash to fuel drug discovery and help it scale up and market the test, named for the mythological archer Paris who shot Achilles in the heel. The company plans to move from its lab space in Seattle at the Institute for Systems Biology to a larger facility in Bothell, Wash., and invest more in automation and robotics.
Company researchers presented early data on the approach last year at the American Society for Clinical Oncology meeting.
In 38 of 53 patients assessed, company testing could predict their response to drugs. This includes predicting the lack of a response in cases where physicians used a different drug than that suggested by the test. Positive responses accounted for the majority of cases and were measured as tumor shrinkage, improvement in symptoms, or improvements in biomarkers, molecules associated with cancer.
Some patient samples yielded low cell counts or had poor viability. But overall, tissue could be generated for testing for about 70% of patients.
One ovarian cancer patient was treated with a drug normally used for lymphoma and leukemia, based on her test results. She left hospice care and two years later is still on treatment guided by the Paris Test. “This is an exceptional case,” cautions Grandori. “But many patients have had from months to years of benefit.”
The funding round was led by the Washington Research Foundation along with Alethea Fulcrum Fund, Vincere Capital Biotech, Bangarang Group, and unnamed investors. Total funding to date is $19 million.