Medicxi founds biotech to Divide & Conquer tough solid tumors

Moncef Slaoui and his colleagues at Medicxi have taken the wraps off a new oncology startup, Divide & Conquer. The biotech wants to interrupt the cell-to-cell communication that may make some solid tumors hard to treat, thereby rendering cancers including glioblastoma vulnerable to existing drugs.

The concept grew out of work done by Frank Winkler and his colleagues at Heidelberg University. Winkler showed that radiotherapy and chemotherapy eliminate peripheral glioblastoma cells in mice but leave the core of the tumor unharmed. The unharmed cells are part of a functional network that may underpin their resistance, potentially because it enables them to weather surges in calcium that would otherwise trigger cell death programs.

Slaoui, the former head of pharmaceutical R&D at GlaxoSmithKline, and his Medicxi colleague David Grainger identified the protection mechanism as a possible explanation for why some solid tumors are resistant to treatment. Working with Winkler and DNA repair specialist Miroslav Radman, the VCs set up D&C to develop drugs designed to disrupt the protection mechanism.

D&C exited stealth today in a move timed to coincide with the publication of a paper by Winkler. The Cambridge, U.K.-based biotech begins life with £10 million ($12.5 million) in series A funding from Medicxi and plans to improve outcomes in hard-to-treat solid tumors, starting with glioblastoma.

“There is compelling evidence that glioblastoma cells use fine structures called tumour microtubes to communicate and share materials between themselves in order to grow, invade the brain, and resist chemotherapy and radiotherapy. At Divide & Conquer we aim to develop new medicines that disrupt such communication between cancer cells and bring these to clinical trials in patients,” Slaoui said in a statement.

D&C has discovered a compound it thinks can safely sever connections that may give glioblastoma its power over chemotherapy and radiotherapy. In doing so, D&C may be able to turn glioblastoma from a hard-to-treat cancer into a vulnerable tumor that is amenable to treatment with existing drugs.

With research suggesting triple-negative breast cancer and other highly drug resistant tumors feature the connections seen in glioblastoma, the potential power and breadth of the approach has caused excitement at Medicxi. 

“There is no shortage of biotech startups targeting cancer, but this research from Professors Radman and Winkler represents some of the most exciting work in the area that I’ve seen,” Slaoui said.

D&C has a long way to go to show the idea works in practice. But Medicxi’s track record of helping startups efficiently validate therapeutic concepts, plus more recently gained power to offer longer-term financial support, suggests D&C is well placed to show whether the excitement is justified.