The most effective treatment for cancer relies on early detection as this is before cancer has spread and is easiest to remove. The prognosis becomes bleaker when cancer has metastasized, referred to as Stage 4, and becomes difficult to control and cure. Therapies have traditionally been focused on treating primary cancer locations but these therapies are ineffective when cancer hasn’t been contained. Volastra Therapeutics is focused on developing cutting-edge therapies for chromosomal instability (CIN), an aberration from the normal 46 chromosomes. When CIN occurs, it’s one of the conduits that causes cancer to spread. Using a blend of machine learning, imaging, and bioinformatics to identify CIN, the Harlem-based company is able to pinpoint which cancers have a high likelihood of spreading and develop therapeutics accordingly.
AlleyWatch caught up with Charles Hugh-Jones, MD to learn more about how Volstra’s technology is helping develop new therapeutics, future strategic plans, and recent seed extension round.
Who were your investors and how much did you raise?
We announced an extension of our original $12 million seed round to a total of $44 million. New investors Vida Ventures and Catalio Capital Management joined our syndicate that includes Polaris Partners, Droia Ventures, ARCH Venture Partners, and Quark Venture.
Tell us about the product or service that Volastra Therapeutics offers.
When cancer cells spread from the primary tumor, they can seed secondary tumors in other organs of the body, known as metastasis. Once metastasis happens, it is difficult to control. Our mission at Volastra is to block the spread of cancer.
Our founders discovered that a mechanism known as chromosomal instability, or CIN, drives cancer metastasis and treatment resistance. We’re using state-of-the-art technology incorporating both computational and experimental approaches to identify which cancers have high levels of chromosomal instability, or CIN – and are therefore more likely to metastasize.
Our goal is to turn these insights into life-saving therapies.
What inspired the start of Volastra Therapeutics?
Our scientific founders discovered a key biological pathway that drives metastasis: A mechanism known as chromosomal instability, or CIN. When cells divide, their chromosomes usually separate in an orderly fashion. In CIN-High cancers, this process is highly error-prone. High levels of CIN drive cancer metastasis and treatment resistance, as well as increased risk of disease recurrence and death.
Volastra is built on these groundbreaking insights and seeks to develop therapies that can target CIN and prevent metastasis.
How is Volastra Therapeutics different?
Most therapies on the market today are directed toward primary tumors – and are largely unsuccessful once cancer has metastasized.
Our work represents a major breakthrough for cancer research. We’re focused on tackling metastasis because it’s where we believe we can make the biggest difference. Our goal is to leverage unique insights into CIN to develop novel treatments that can stop cancer in its tracks and extend the lives of patients.
What market does Volastra Therapeutics target and how big is it?
We seek to develop new therapies for people living with metastatic cancer. More than 350,000 people in the U.S. get metastatic cancer yearly. In addition, we believe the insights generated from our research, including our partnership with Microsoft, will help inform better diagnosis of cancer as well as identification of patients most likely to benefit from certain therapies.
What’s your business model?
Blocking metastasis is a challenge, so we’re exploring multiple ways to stop the spread of cancer by targeting CIN.
We are building a technology combining artificial intelligence, bioinformatics, and proprietary imaging techniques to identify which cancers have high levels of chromosomal instability, or CIN – and are therefore more likely to metastasize.
We’re also evaluating our unique therapeutic approaches in metastatic tumor organoids, which lets us test our ideas far more quickly than we could with animal models alone.
With our proprietary technology, we seek to identify targets more quickly, select the appropriate patients for therapy more effectively, and ultimately improve patient outcomes.
How has COVID-19 impacted the business?
Volastra has continued to make great progress despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. We have adapted to a flexible work model, hired several team members, leased a new 11,000 square-foot lab space in the Mink Building in West Harlem, and also announced several important milestones, including the extension of our seed financing, a new partnership with Dewpoint Therapeutics to develop novel condensate modulators for cancer treatment, and a new collaboration with Microsoft that will integrate Microsoft’s Azure AI and Volastra’s insights into tumor biology to develop machine learning tools to detect drivers of tumor growth and predict metastatic risk.
What was the funding process like
We have a very supportive syndicate of investors and were fortunate enough to add Catalio and Vida Ventures to our list. They made the process relatively seamless.
What are the biggest challenges that you faced while raising capital?
No major challenges.
What factors about your business led your investors to write the check?
Metastatic cancers account for 90% of cancer deaths, yet most therapies on the market today are directed toward primary tumors – and are largely unsuccessful once cancer has spread.
In addition, metastatic tumors may differ from the primary tumor – in their biology and how they respond to treatment. There has been very little research into blocking metastasis or treating the metastasized tumors and unfortunately targeted therapies have come up short in addressing this need.
Despite the long-time recognition that CIN is associated with cancer, until now, it has been a major unresolved challenge in cancer research. Our expertise in the science of CIN opens up new avenues for clinical discovery.
What are the milestones you plan to achieve in the next six months?
Currently, we are focused on optimizing our development candidates over the next few years. We expect to reach clinical trials in 2023.
What advice can you offer companies in New York that do not have a fresh injection of capital in the bank?
There is a growing amount of incubator space in the city for small companies starting out. We took advantage of space at JLabs in our first few months as a company and they were unbelievably supportive. Not only will you get more tailorable amount of space (a bench all the way up to a large size private lab) but you will also get the support of the staff and other startup companies that are also working out of the space.
Where do you see the company going now over the near term?
The extended seed funding gives us the backing to build out the platform, bring new talent into the company, and go after new targets at greater scale over the next 2-3 years. We will continue to build out our team, optimize our development candidates and move toward clinical trials.
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