TAE bags $40M to take targeted radiotherapy mainstream

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The potential for boron neutron capture therapy to provide targeted, highly efficacious treatment has tantalized scientists for decades. (pasja1000)

TAE Life Sciences has raised $40 million to eliminate the main bottleneck to widespread use of boron neutron capture therapy (BNCT). The startup, a spinoff from a nuclear fusion company, is working on a neutron source designed to take BNCT out of nuclear research reactors and into hospitals.

ARTIS Ventures, a VC shop that funded Stemcentrx on route to its $6 billion-plus takeover by AbbVie, led a $40 million round to equip TAE to take its accelerator-based neutron source toward regulatory approvals and work with partners to clinically validate its approach to BNCT. 

The potential for BNCT to provide targeted, highly efficacious treatment of cancers affecting a range of body parts, particularly the head, neck and brain, has tantalized scientists for decades. The idea is based on the propensity for boron-10 to capture thermal neutrons, triggering the release of particles that deposit a lot of energy in an area the size of a single cell. That energy kills adjacent cells but has no effect on even marginally more remote parts of the body. 

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Localizing boron-10 in cancer cells could therefore destroy tumors while leaving healthy tissue intact. Multiple studies of varying degrees of scientific rigor have supported the idea by showing that patients with inoperable tumors resistant to existing treatments can live for years after receiving BNCT. The problem is that the number of sites capable of generating the neutrons is small and getting smaller.

TAE, like others before it, sees accelerators as the way to move BNCT into the mainstream. These devices are smaller and less expensive than nuclear reactors, making hospital-based use viable, but have yet to show they deliver comparable outcomes. Sumitomo Heavy Industries is leading efforts to generate validatory data through a midphase trial of its accelerator and Stella Pharma’s boron drug in glioblastoma patients.

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California-based TAE’s program is less advanced, but the startup and its backers think its technology is good enough to enable it to leapfrog the competition. TAE Technologies, TAE Life Sciences' parent company, developed the accelerator and the negative ion tandem design through its work on fusion energy. And it thinks the design will result in a small, reliable device that delivers a predictable neutron source. 

TAE is now working to validate the idea and has lined up its first installation of the device. Neuboron Medtech, a Chinese BNCT player, will receive the first of TAE’s neutron beam systems. In the longer term, TAE wants to become the main supplier of neutron beams, creating the network of sites for routine BNCT and clinical trials that has eluded physicians and researchers for decades. 

Scientists first proposed BNCT as a concept in the 1930s and began trialling the approach in the U.S. in the 1950s. After some early failures, outcomes in BNCT trials improved as researchers developed more selective boron compounds and increased the penetration of thermal neutrons. But uptake of the approach has remained limited due to the lack of hospital-based sources of neutrons.