By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer for Science and Technology
President Joe Biden announced he would renew the U.S. Beau Biden Cancer Moonshot Initiative, a $1.8 billion cancer research program with a target of decreasing cancer deaths by at least 50% in the next 25 years.
“Cancer is such a terrible problem, scientifically and medically diverse problem,” said Charlie Bolten, Senior Vice President of BioGenerator. “It’s going to take a lot of tools to overcome that.”
Some of those tools are being developed by new biotechnology companies sharing space in BioGenerator Labs at the BioSTL Building in St. Louis.
“So all that takes a lot of money,” said Bolten. “And to win this battle is going to take big, big dollars.”
BioGenerator Ventures is helping to launch companies in the cancer research space. This gives startups a real shot at getting ideas from bench to market in the battle against all kinds of cancer. BioGenerator is the startup creation and investment arm of the local innovation hub BioSTL.
“Some have raised hundreds of millions of dollars. You read about Wugen and Arch Oncology and Immunophotonics. These are companies that are progressing their potential therapies in patients today,” said Bolten.
With President Biden’s announcement to renew the Cancer Moonshot to accelerate the rate of progress against cancer, Bolten believes St. Louis will play a growing role.
“The Cancer Moonshot is putting dollars into the top of the funnel that starts with the basic research that kicks out these ideas. And unquestionably Washington University is on the map. It’s a top five medical teaching hospital in the world. Some of the very best and brightest scientists thinking about cancer research live in St. Louis, Missouri and are doing their research here. That’s where the ideas come from and then they spin out into what we do,” Bolten said. “So we start companies based on promising ideas. If you just say, ‘What are we working on in St. Louis?’ It’s pretty much everything. A lot of the companies today are working on trying to shift the balance of power back to the natural system to destroy the cancer versus, kind of, the poisons of the early days of cancer.”
In BioGenerator’s portfolio, Wugen is developing new immunotherapies targeting different types of leukemia and other solid tumor cancers. Immunotherapy uses a patient’s immune system to fight cancer. One of Wugen’s cellular therapies is focused on natural killer cells, one of the body’s natural defenses against cancer. With Wugen’s Memory Natural Killer (NK) Cell technology, a patient is treated with enhanced natural killer cells to find and destroy cancer cells that have learned to hide from the patient’s immune system.
“One question we get a lot is, ‘Why are you building a company in St. Louis?’ as compared to Boston, San Francisco. And the answer is really, there’s so much scientific talent that’s in St. Louis coming from WashU or SLU and many of the other universities here,” said Ryan Sullivan, PhD, Vice President and Head of NK Cell Research for Wugen. “So what we’re really doing here, with the assistance and support of BioSTL, is building a company in St. Louis that can stay in St. Louis and keep the science and technology here. And really what we’re hoping is that with state support and with federal support, Missouri and St. Louis can really become a hub of biotech innovation.”
The research for Wugen started in a Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis laboratory. Wugen has raised more than $200 million and now has more than 50 employees working in the BioGenerator Lab space.
The research for Geneoscopy, another successful company in BioGenerator’s portfolio, also started at Washington University School of Medicine. Geneoscopy is trying to help people win the battle against colon cancer by offering a new noninvasive screening tool to identify disease earlier. Geneoscopy raised $105 million in 2021.
Bolten pointed to a growing number of startup companies dedicated to fighting cancer in St. Louis. BioSTL starting taking steps years ago to put St. Louis on the map as a hub for life sciences, and this includes startups in the cancer research space.
“It starts with the BioSTL story,” said Bolten. “So Dr. Danforth visited Boston and saw how the presence of a world-class university could transform a city and create an economy in a city, and embarked on this journey to create that in St. Louis.”
It’s expected the influx of federal dollars from Cancer Moonshot will help startup companies with innovative cancer treatments and diagnostics to expand and grow, making the startups more attractive for venture capital firms to invest.
“The Cancer Moonshot is putting more resources into the whole system, and part of that is going to be going into companies,” Bolten said. “More dollars going into research means more dollars going to our companies and more companies in St. Louis working to try and solve this in so many different ways.”