By Aayushi Pratap, Forbes Staff, July 8, 2021
Around seven out of ten cancer patients don’t respond to drugs in the first go. This is a hard-hitting statistic for Xiling Shen, who lost his uncle to metastatic colorectal cancer. “Cancer patients are kind of like lab rats. You try different drugs on them. One doesn’t work, so you try another one,” says Shen, a researcher at Duke University. His startup, Xilis, is on a journey to find the most effective drugs for every cancer patient, without turning them into guinea pigs.
The North Carolina-based company announced a $70 million Series A funding on Thursday in a round led by Mubadala Capital.
“The problem is that you only find out if a drug works or not, after you put it into a patient,” says Shen. Even with advances in genomics, the current systems of predicting which drugs may work for a patient are largely inefficient, he adds.
Shen, an electrical engineer, says he had no plans to work in cancer research. In fact, while his mother wanted him to become a doctor when he was growing up in China, he decided against it after his uncle succumbed to the disease. “I wanted to stay away from medicine as much as possible. It was horrible to watch him live with it,” Shen adds. Years later, however, he read about research surrounding “organoids,” which inspired him to see if it could be applied to cancers. Organoids are miniature versions of tumors grown in the laboratory with genetic material from a patient’s biopsy sample. The cells from the biopsy are broken into smaller pieces and are encapsulated in around 10,000 tiny little gel droplets.The gel resembles the matrix that naturally surrounds cancer tissues in the body. These organoids are then tested against a wide combination of drugs, to find the most efficacious ones. “This allows us to grow many copies of tumors to test more and more drugs, much cheaper and faster,” Shen adds.
Hans Clevers, inventor of this organoid technology, cofounded the company with Shen and David Hsu, a medical oncologist. The technology is already being brought to bear in ongoing clinical trials on colorectal and breast cancers. So far, the company’s data suggests it can predict the best drug combination for a particular patient within 10 days. The company will apply for an FDA approval on this technique in the coming years.
Investors who bet their money on Xiling say that they were attracted by the company’s ability to work both with pharmaceuticals and patients. Ayman AlAbdallah, a venture capitalist at Mubadala, says only one in about ten cancer drugs developed actually make it to the market. “And once a drug is approved, it doesn’t necessarily work for every patient, which is another problem.” AlAbdallah believes that Xiling’s technology has the potential of becoming the industry standard to predict which drugs could actually work for patients.“Patients will benefit by avoiding time spent on treatment cycles that are ineffective, and instead, receive therapies with the greatest potential of success quickly and efficiently,” he adds.
Shen says the new funding will go towards the company’s clinical trials and conducting research with pharmaceuticals towards drug development and testing. Once perfected, he believes his company’s technology can help future patients avoid his relative’s experience. “Our goal is to solve problems so that people don’t go through what my uncle went through,” he adds.