A Series A round closed by Barcelona-based startup Ona Therapeutics will finance the preclinical development of a drug that prevents cancer from spreading in the body by targeting the metabolism of cancer cells.
The round was supported by returning investor Asabys Partners, as well as new European investors including Alta Life Sciences, Bpifrance, Fund+, and Ysios Capital. The proceeds will help the company to complete the preclinical development of its lead candidate in solid tumors, and prepare a phase I study involving 150 patients, which is expected to launch in 2023.
Ona Therapeutics was founded by Salvador Aznar-Benitah, a scientist at the Institute for Research in Biomedicine in Barcelona. The company’s technology is based on his group’s discovery in 2017 that the process where cancer cells start to spread around the body, called metastasis, often depends on a specific protein called CD36. This protein — found on the surface of our cells — allows cells to absorb fat molecules to obtain energy, a process that is essential for cancer cells to start metastasis.
“We are targeting the metastatic initiating cells, which need a high fat intake in order to survive,” Valerie Vanhooren, the CEO and co-founder of Ona Therapeutics, told me. “We use an antibody to block the fatty acid entrance into these cells.”
The ability of tumors to spread in the body has long been a mystery to science and Aznar-Benitah’s research has been hailed as a major contribution in the field. The implications of his work range from new cancer therapies to possible dietary breakthroughs that can support the treatment of cancer patients. For example, cutting the amount of saturated fatty acids in our diets could help to combat cancer, though it would be hard to control our lifestyles to achieve this.
The CD36 protein plays multiple roles in cancer as well as other diseases such as malaria and metabolic conditions. One of the most advanced oncology biotechs targeting this same protein is US-based Vigeo Therapeutics, whose lead candidate is already in phase II clinical trials for the treatment of solid tumors. In contrast to Ona’s project, which focuses on fat metabolism, Vigeo’s candidate causes cells to produce a molecule that kills tumors by activating CD36.
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