January 13, 2021
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Imagine if each and every cancer patient got a custom cancer treatment based on their bodies’ makeup, which in turn increased the likelihood of the treatment’s success? zPREDICTA is making this vision reality. By artificially replicating a body’s internal environment, cancer drugs can be effectively tested before entering a human body, allowing drug developers and physicians to predict how a patient will respond to the cancer treatment. From there, they can make any needed adjustments before a patient ever receives a dose—which is nothing less than revolutionary.
Propel(x) got the chance to talk to Julia Kirshner, co-founder and CEO of zPREDICTA, to find out more about their game-changing innovation.
Propel(x): What does zPREDICTA do?
Julia: We develop next-generation technology to improve the accuracy of drug testing, and make sure that the drugs that are being developed will actually work in people. Right now, 95% of new drug candidates that go into clinical trials to be tested in patients do not work in people. They show no activity in patients, which then wastes all the time that was spent on developing these compounds.
Our technology allows drug developers to identify compounds that will be effective against human tumors. So by eliminating all the compounds that are not going to work in people up front, or a majority of those compounds, we’re dramatically improving accuracy of the process allowing a significantly larger number of drugs to reach the market. Moreover, eliminating the expense of trial-and-error reduces the overall drug development costs. Reducing the cost and eliminating ineffective compounds is crucial for the success of personalized medicine.
Under this new paradigm, we need to develop multiple drugs that will be very effective for smaller groups of people instead of a current approach where a single drug hopefully works for everyone. Experts agree that the current approach is not working, but the personalized medicine paradigm will only be achieved with new methodologies that will provide accuracy to bring multiple drugs to market safely and quickly, this is what our technology offers.
Propel(x): Describe how your technology works, and how you’re able to do this.
Julia: Currently, when drugs are tested on cells, the cells are grown on the surface of a plastic petri dish, which is not even close to a patient’s makeup. The current set-up is not only missing the three-dimensional structure of human tissues, but it’s also missing the environmental components that promote tumor survival, maintain cell growth, and induce drug resistance. We reconstruct the environment of human organs to allow the cells to grow into three-dimensional functional organoids. The resulting cellular structures look and function the same way as the human tumors.
We reconstruct organ-specific environment, because you cannot take lung cancer cells and grow them in the same environment as you would brain cancer cells. You have to customize the system to mimic the native conditions of the tissue under study. In addition, we reconstruct disease-specific conditions to ensure that drugs encounter the same environment as would be present in a patient with a particular cancer. When you test drugs using current methods, without the organ- and disease-specific components, you’re skewing the system away from what will happen in a patient.
Propel(x): How did you come up with this idea?
Julia: In graduate school, I started working on understanding how tissue surrounding the tumor affect cancer growth and how different components of the environment affect tumor cells and their response to drugs. Everyone was focusing on looking at genetics and gene expression. However, we found that to reverse cancer it wasn’t enough for a cell to express genes that are found in healthy tissue, the cells also had to also be in the correct environment. It was fascinating to see that you can’t just drive something based on genetics alone. You also need the correct external factors. Then I started looking at how these external factors drive cancer growth and spread, and one thing led to another.
Propel(x): How’s your innovation a leap forward, vis-à-vis the current state of the art.
Julia: We stand apart from other companies that are developing 3D culture platforms and technologies in that we are treating the model as a representation of a human condition. It’s not enough to take cells and force them to clump into a three-dimensional structure. You have to provide them with the correct surroundings and the correct physiology for the resulting organoids to function properly.
So the first unique feature of our technology is that it’s organ-specific and disease-specific; the lung tissue is very different from the brain tissue, so it’s crucial to reconstruct each tissue correctly and provide the correct factors to reconstruct the biology of human disease. The second feature is the capacity to keep human cells alive for weeks without losing the cells, something extremely difficult, and sometimes impossible, to achieve using current methods.
So this is really where we stand out from others because we provide this organ- and disease-specific, unique environment that is formulated to sustain long-term growth of cells that belong there.
Propel(x): And where are you in terms of your development, and of this being fully available and commercialized?
Julia: Right now we have two products. The first is called r-Bone™ (reconstructed bone), which is used for growing patient cells from multiple myeloma and AML, acute myeloid leukemia. We also are going to be launching an r-Lung™ (reconstructed lung) product in a few months. So those are our off-the-shelf products that you can buy, bring to your lab, and do the experiments. We also have a number of partnerships with pharmaceutical companies where we’re working together to investigate other cancers and other tissues.
Propel(x): You are a Y Combinator company. Talk to me about that recognition, and how you’ve been received by the industry.
Julia: I started my career in academia. I was a professor at Purdue for five years, which is how my co-founder and I met. Having academic roots gave me a really unique perspective into what scientists would want and how scientists approach things. So this really helps in my interaction with scientists in pharma. Being a Y Combinator company helped us learn a lot about the business aspects of getting our product out into the world and marketing it effectively. Combining that with our team’s very strong scientific expertise Y Combinator has allowed us to really push our technology forward.
Propel(x): It’s unique for a science company to take a Y Combinator route versus a program that’s specifically for science entrepreneurs.
Julia: Between all of us, we have the science covered. The team has a deep science background and we have built a strong scientific advisory board. We realized that we were two strong scientists who needed to gain startup business experience in a proven environment. And that’s why going to Y Combinator was instrumental for us. I don’t know if we would have been able to get similar business insights in a more traditional kind of biology incubator with a lot of biology advisers.
Propel(x): And how are you enjoying being a science entrepreneur?
Julia: It’s never dull, never the same.
Propel(x): Could you walk me through your fundraising so far? And then we can talk about the different avenues you use to raise money for zPREDICTA
Julia: After Y Combinator, we went out to raise a fairly small amount to validate the type of products the marketplace was after. We had a couple of different business models we wanted to test – which we’ve done successfully.
We are now expanding to high throughput capabilities for our technology. So our fundraising goals, for the next steps, are to expand the capabilities of the technology and product lines, and automate the manufacturing of the products. And then, as a longer-term strategy for global expansion and integration into the industry, we are going to work with the FDA to see how we can incorporate our testing approach to improve the current testing systems.
Propel(x): Raising on Propel(x) was pretty new as well. Tell me why you decided to use an online platform to help you during your fundraising process.
Julia: What I really liked about the platform from Propel(x) was the consolidated due diligence process, which includes consolidated question and answer process, especially when you’re raising a small amount. Talk about a time-saver. Even though it’s a lot of fun to meet different investors and hear different perspectives, it can be very time consuming. So what attracted me to Propel(x) was answering everyone’s questions at the same time. Because inevitably everybody has very similar questions about the technology. It allows you to address the questions better because you have a little more time to think about, and give more complete answers. I also really liked reaching many people at once, especially having a conversation with the whole group at the same time.
Propel(x): What advice would you have for other science entrepreneurs like yourself in terms of a fundraising process, or learnings that you could share?
Julia: I would say be patient, and try out different ways of explaining what your technology does. Many hard science entrepreneurs, when interacting with investors, can get very impatient when investors start asking questions. Investors are very smart people, but they may not come from your background and likely have not been working on the thing you have been working on for years. So you have to learn – this is a skill, and this is an art – to explain what you do to very intelligent people outside of your area so that they can fully understand and get just as excited as you are about your venture.
Propel(x): So ten years from now, zPREDICTA is a huge success. How has society been impacted because of that success? And how will the world be better?
Julia: Our global vision is to integrate this platform into pharmaceutical industry, so that when the drugs go into patients, they will actually work. This will allow a larger number of less expensive drugs to get out in the market.
Ultimately, everything that we’re doing is about the patient. And it may sound clichéd, but it’s true: Everybody knows someone with cancer. So it’s easy in this case to see what you’re doing it for.