HiberCell launches with $60M+ to combat cancer relapse and metastasis

HiberCell, a new startup focused on preventing cancer metastasis and relapse, launched Thursday with research out of Mount Sinai and $60.75 million from the likes of ARCH Venture Partners, Hillhouse Capital and 6 Dimensions Capital. 

The company reckons it is the first to exclusively focus on detecting and treating tumor dormancy that can lead to cancer spread. 

“While we have made great strides in treating primary tumors, the unfortunate and painful truth is that relapsed or metastatic cancer still claims the lives of most people with cancer, even when their primary tumor has been successfully treated,” said Julio Aguirre-Ghiso, Ph.D., HiberCell’s scientific founder and a professor at The Tisch Cancer Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. 

New York-based HiberCell is building on “converging data from multiple labs”—including from Aguirre-Ghiso's lab at Mount Sinai—showing the prevalence of dormant disseminated tumor cells (DTCs) that remain undetected in the body for long periods of time, as well as how they behave as the “seeds of metastasis.” 

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It’s not a new idea, said Alan Rigby, Ph.D., HiberCell's co-founder, president and chief scientific officer: “If you think about dissemination, this notion of solitary cells breaking away from the primary tumor, we’ve known that since the ‘50s. This is not a novel mechanism. I think what is novel is our ability to understand the role of those cells when they take up residence in a different niche [in the body.]” 

First up, the company is building its knowledge base, figuring out where dormant DTCs live, how they survive and what “wakes them up” again to cause metastatic spread. The hope is that by understanding how dormant DTCs drive metastasis, HiberCell will be able to identify, isolate, genomically and transcriptionally annotate them and, eventually, drug them. 

Rigby sees two ways to attack DTCs: by eradicating them or by inducing dormancy. 

The first requires the ability to target pathways that are overexpressed in DTCs, which HiberCell has managed to do in animal studies, Rigby said. The second would be a “paradigm shift” in cancer treatment—”the notion of maintenance, maintaining someone’s cancer index, if you will,” he said. 

And both could be combined in a one-two punch that would force DTCs into a "very deep sleep state” before being hit with a drug that would eliminate them altogether. 

HiberCell will be taking lab space in New York City and is starting out with a team of six. It hopes to boost that number to 10 or 12 by the end of the year. An important piece is its collaboration consortia, which was put in place so it can get its hands on patient material and really pin down the foundational biology, Rigby said.