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New venture fund backs CytoSeek, a startup looking to give “superpowers” to cancer-fighting T-cells

March 16, 2021, 8:00 AM UTC

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Therapies that seek to turn the body’s own immune system into a potent weapon against cancer are offering hope to millions of patients around the globe. But these treatments have some limitations, making them less effective for some types of cancer.

A startup based in Bristol, U.K., is developing technology it hopes will allow a whole new range of cancers to be effectively targeted with immunotherapy, potentially saving millions of lives. The technology is a specialized protein coating that binds to immune cells, endowing them with new properties.

One of its first products is a coating that lets T-cells, which can identify and destroy abnormal cells and are often used in immunotherapy treatments, carry oxygen along with them deeper into a solid tumor. That’s important because the environment inside tumors is oxygen poor. This has been found to reduce the ability of certain T-cells to mount an effective immune response.

The company, CytoSeek, today announced that it has raised £3.5 million ($4.87 million) from investors to continue to test its technology and develop commercial partnerships. Carolyn Porter, the company’s chief executive, says its technology is still three to four years from being ready for human clinical trials. But it has been shown promise in initial lab tests, she says.

The funding round represents the debut investment for a new Bristol-based venture capital firm called Science Creates Ventures (SCV) that is focused on so-called deep tech companies that are based on cutting-edge innovations in computer science and biotechnology. The firm, which led the CytoSeek funding round, is the brainchild of Harry Destecroix, a co-founder of Ziylo, a biotech startup that was acquired by pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk in 2018 for more than $800 million.

Destecroix, who has also launched an incubator for deep tech companies in Bristol called Unit DX and has a second incubator, Unit DY, in the works, says that SCV is primarily interested in backing translational research—this is companies looking to take ideas from academia and moving them into industry. “We are interested in trying to find breakthrough technology or platforms that can improve healthcare and quality of life,” he says.

Destecroix says he chose Bristol because of the strong engineering and science departments at the University of Bristol: both Ziylo and CytoSeek are spinouts from the university. He says he is a believer in the idea that “place is really important to innovation,” and that he wants SCV to help further cement Bristol’s reputation as an important tech hub. But he says that the fund, which has about $15 million under management from 100 different investors, will consider investing in companies based in other U.K. cities too.

Portrait of Harry Destecroix, founder of Science Creates Ventures.
Photo courtesy of Science Creates Ventures

At the core of CytoSeek’s technology is what is called an “artificial membrane binding protein,” which is an engineered protein that due to electro-chemical processes will adhere to a cell membrane. It was invented by Adam Perriman, the University of Bristol professor of bioengineering who founded CytoSeek and is now the company’s chief scientific officer. The binding protein forms an anchor point to the cell onto which can be grafted a large range of additional synthetic proteins designed to provide the host cell with new properties. “We have this as universal anchor for a range of designer proteins,” Porter says.

This technology, she says, has several advantages over traditional immunotherapy strategies for cancer that most depend on genetically modifying immune cells so that they can target various cancers. She says it is difficult to make multiple changes to an immune cell’s DNA at the same time, without compromising that cell’s viability. So, for instance, it would be difficult to try to use genetic engineering to give a T-cell the ability to recognize and kill certain cancer cells while also modifying it genetically so that it produced oxygen-carrying proteins.

CytoSeek’s technology gets around this limitation because its synthetic proteins can simply be mixed with the immune cells in a test tube and they will bind to the T-cells, giving them these new “superpowers,” without worrying about further changes to the cell DNA.

Porter says that like many biotech startups CytoSeek will likely pursue a two-pronged strategy: First, it will look to license its artificial membrane binding protein technology to other biotechnology companies and pharmaceutical companies. There are a number of businesses already working on immunotherapies based on genetically-modified T-cells, known as chimeric antigen receptor T-cells (or CAR T cells for short), which may be interested in CytoSeek’s oxygen-carrying protein coating. Second, it will also look to develop its own treatment for a specific cancer based on using its technology to boost the properties of a different part of the immune response, possibly NK cells, which can kill adjacent cells that show signs of cancer, she says.

In addition to SCV, a number of other investors are backing CytoSeek in the current funding round. These include Parkwalk Advisors, a venture capital firm that specializes in university spinouts; Meltwind Advisory, the Cambridge, U.K.-based venture capital firm founded by biotech entrepreneur Jonathan Milner; and Luminous Ventures, which is a London-based deep tech investment fund focused on Europe.