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January 28, 2021

Biotech entrepreneurs’ latest venture targets deadly pediatric brain tumors

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED Dr. Ranjit Bindra

Two co-founders of New Haven oncology biotech Cybrexa Therapeutics are working together on another startup — this time to develop a new way to fight deadly pediatric brain tumors and other cancers.

Athena Therapeutics launched in December and plans to open a lab in Greater New Haven by spring.

The newborn company has raised $600,000 so far and expects to announce a major funding round later this year.

It also has the backing of well-known Connecticut bioscience pioneer and venture capitalist Kevin Rakin, the former CEO of genomics company Genaissance Pharmaceuticals, one of New Haven’s earliest biotechnology companies.

Rakin co-founded Genaissance in 1997 and took it public three years later, growing it into one of the state’s most prominent biotechs before it sold for $56 million in 2005.

He also started Westport regenerative medicine biotech Advanced BioHealing, which sold for $750 million in 2011, and life sciences venture capital firm HighCape Capital Partners.

The goal of his latest venture is to create a new class of personalized cancer drugs by exploiting the metabolic defects in cancer cells.

The idea was born — by accident — in the lab of Dr. Ranjit Bindra, a Yale professor of therapeutic radiology who also co-directs the brain tumor center at the university’s Smilow Cancer Hospital.

Around five years ago, Bindra and a graduate student working in his lab were screening for a class of cancer drugs called DNA repair inhibitors.

“We just very serendipitously and unexpectedly came across this cancer metabolism pathway that was completely disruptive in subsets of all these cancers,” Bindra recalls.

Bindra likens a cancer cell to an engine that’s running 24/7. In order to keep going, it needs to constantly produce more fuel.

In human cells, that fuel is a coenzyme called nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide, or NAD, and Bindra’s lab uncovered defects in the way some cancer cells were producing it.

“We realized that set up a vulnerability that we could target with small molecule drugs,” he says.

Excited by what they found, he cold-called one of the country’s leading authorities on cancer metabolism and NAD, Charles Brenner, who at the time had a lab at the University of Iowa.

Their labs began collaborating and ultimately pinpointed and patented specific biomarkers, or molecular features in tumors, that made them likely to respond to NAD-blocking drugs.

While many such drugs have made it to clinical trials, Bindra said most failed because the researchers didn’t enroll patients with the right biomarkers.

“We believe that you need to focus on these specific features in order for the drugs to work,” he says. “You have to use this personalized medicine approach.”

Personal mission

Bindra’s motivation for starting Athena is a personal one. During his radiation oncology residency at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, he got to know a 3-year-old girl who later died from a rare, inoperable brain stem glioma.

Most children with such tumors are diagnosed around age 5 and typically survive for one to two years. The only treatment is palliative — six weeks of daily radiation therapy.

Bindra says her tumor is among the types that may be vulnerable to NAD-blocking drugs, which strengthened his resolve to quickly get his research to patients.

“It was very clear that the fastest way to do this was to start a company and just make our own drugs,” he says.

So one day over coffee, he pitched his idea to Rakin, a mentor and friend who he met in 2005, while he was a med student, through Yale’s Office of Cooperative Research. (The pair collaborated on a short-lived gene-targeting startup before launching Cybrexa with serial entrepreneurs Per Hellsund and Kevin Didden in 2017.)

Rakin agreed to join Bindra and Brenner as co-founders, and they entered the idea in a pitch contest sponsored by the Blavatnik Fund for Innovation at Yale last year — and won.

The prize was $300,000 along with access to experts and business development resources to incubate the company.

Last December, state venture capital arm Connecticut Innovations and Rakin’s HighCape kicked in another $300,000 in pre-seed funding, allowing Athena to begin building its leadership team, with an eye toward launching its first human testing in 2022.

“This is going to be a really great example of an ultra-rapid bench-to-bedside biotech,” Bindra says. “We’re actively looking for space and hopefully by the spring we’ll be somewhere in the New Haven area.”

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