In March, a team of graduate students from Northwestern University in Chicago was chosen as a winner in the Breast Cancer Startup Challenge, a global competition featuring research technologies developed by scientists at the National Cancer Institute and Avon Foundation-funded university labs. Following the win, the team launched tech startup Orpheden Therapeutics to develop a promising new personalized cancer treatment. Below, CEO John Kuelper talks about the plans for Orpheden.
Q: Can you describe your company’s approach to personalized cancer care in layman’s terms?
A: Orpheden is building a cancer therapy that is truly personalized to an individual patient and, as a result, has the potential to safely treat some of the most complex and refractory diseases. Our personalized therapy centers on a highly specialized type of cell in the body, the dendritic cell, which is like the General of the immune system in that it identifies what to attack and commands all other immune cells to attack it. Orpheden uses a unique process to drastically strengthen these dendritic cells and to reprogram them with detailed instructions on how to identify cancer cells and avoid healthy cells. When we administer our therapy to the patient, the mature dendritic cells rally the body’s natural defenses to safely and dynamically seek out and destroy cancerous cells throughout the body.
Q: Why did you choose to focus on ovarian cancer first? What other diseases would your technology apply to?
A: Our team has experienced firsthand the terrible reality that there are many cancers that still lack safe and effective treatments. We were driven to develop a better therapy to help those patients where the need is greatest and the options are poorest, and our dendritic cell therapy platform afforded us that opportunity. We honed in on the best fit for the Orpheden platform by applying a rigorous screening methodology that considered things like clinical and technological appropriateness, market and competitive economics, physician workflow impact and patient need.
Through this process it became clear that ovarian cancer was the area where we could make the largest impact in patient outcomes, as quickly and cost effectively as possible. After we obtain proof-of-concept in that flagship ovarian cancer product, we plan to expand to other cancer types so we can maximize the reach of this new approach to cancer care.
Q: Some would argue that the personalized medicine industry is still in its infancy. Do you believe your company will help prove the value of the personalized medicine approach and why?
A: Personalized medicine was initially developed to combat the cancer heterogeneity that drives drug resistance and recurrence. Much of the field is focused on developing advanced diagnostics to identify the specific characteristics of each person’s disease and select the most effective therapeutic options for that patient. In these applications, the end therapy isn’t becoming more personalized, but rather the process of selecting that therapy from a pool of options is.
Orpheden is personalized in the former sense—each end-product is derived from and individually tailored to each patient’s body and unique disease profile. Our approach to personalization is infinitely customizable in that it doesn’t require a huge suite of validated diagnostic/drug pairings and, as a result, is a more realistic approach to overcoming cancer heterogeneity.
Q: You have mentioned having an “investor friendly” business model. Can you elaborate on that model?
A: Although it’s usually prohibitively expensive to build a therapeutic from scratch, the unique advantages of Orpheden’s technology and partner relationships allow us to build a business that is focused on capital efficiency. Our technology has the potential to treat a whole host of different cancer types. This allows us to develop our therapy in the diseases where the clinical need and the opportunity for impact is most immediate, while working with partners to monetize other applications that are more resource intensive.
Beyond the clinical/scientific reasons, ovarian cancer is an excellent opportunity for Orpheden because the FDA has designated it as an “orphan disease,” which drives down overall development costs by up to 90%. Additionally, our team’s relationship with Northwestern University allow us to leverage the university’s dedicated core research and production facilities, which will minimize costs and infrastructure investments for the bulk of our clinical trials. For our investors, this focus on efficiency translates to an enormous return potential with far less equity dilution compared to industry averages.
Q: Where do you stand on fundraising today, and what are your plans for raising capital over the next 12 months?
A: So far, we’ve been fortunate to finance Orpheden’s operations with prize money from various business plan competitions and contributions from the founders. We also benefit from the fact that a number of grants, government incentives and special resources are dedicated to driving orphan drug development in ovarian cancer. Currently, we’re preparing to raise a modest seed round, which will finance some important animal studies and set the stage for human trials. We’re highly focused on getting the right mix of voices around the table so we’re taking a very disciplined approach to this process.