The biotech is focused on blocking the GAS6/AXL pathway in cancer
President and CEO: Stephen L. Eck, M.D., Ph.D.
Based: Houston, Texas
Founded: 2016 (as Aravive)
Clinical focus: Developing highly selective cancer therapies while sparing normal healthy cells, led by the man brought in to help build up Astellas’ cancer unit.
The scoop: This startup is looking to power down the GAS6/AXL pathway in cancer, which could help stop the spread of the disease and lessen side effects of treatment, and it believes research with immuno-oncology medications could help create a new generation of cancer combos.
What makes Aravive fierce: Aravive Biologics has been through a fair amount of change in its short history: It changed its name from Ruga Corp. to Aravive Biologics in late 2016, and changed location—from California to Texas—in line with a $20 million grant from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas, a state-funded program designed to lure biotechs to the region.
It’s also got a new leader in the shape of hematologist Stephen Eck, an ex-executive at Eli Lilly, Pfizer and most recently VP of oncology medical sciences at Astellas. He's now president and CEO of Aravive.
Why leave a Big Pharma like Astellas, and after a career in Big Pharmas, and move to a relatively unknown, new-look upstart that isn’t yet in the clinic? For an answer to that question, he went back to the beginning at the Japanese pharma. “When I went to Astellas, they were just starting to really make a move into oncology; that’s why I was brought in—to basically help create an oncology program that wasn’t there before."
“Not everything we worked on was successful, but I think we created a pretty solid program in oncology. Now, when you’re in a company like Astellas, you look internally, but you’re also looking outside for new and great ideas; you can’t invent everything in-house. So, one of the companies we were looking at was Ruga. We liked the science, but it wasn’t a good strategic fit for Astellas; they wanted something later-stage, so a deal was never made.”
Something about that company remained with Eck. “I thought what they were doing was really cool. And I got to know the team [including Ray Tabibiazar, M.D., founding president and CEO of Aravive/Ruga, and now chair]."
“So, I was a big fan of this small company; and one day, Ray called me up and said you have a lot of experience in cancer, do you want to run the company? I said yeah! Sign me up. It was an easy decision,” he added.
The company's leading candidate, Aravive-S6, is a soluble Fc-fusion protein designed to block the activation of the GAS6-AXL signaling pathway by serving as a decoy that prevents the binding of GAS6 to the AXL receptor on the surface of tumor cells.
The AXL receptor is designed to act as a “survival switch,” a key driver of invasiveness and metastasis, and a regulator of resistance to chemo drugs, Eck explains.
It’s a different approach to receptor tyrosine kinases (TKIs) of the past, and Eck says AXL is a new target as it helps keep tumor cells happy—something he wants to disrupt. The strategy is not to drug AXL, however, but to drug GAS6, which activates AXL. “If you take out GAS6, which is responsible for a lot of the day-to-day activities of cancer and keeps it happy and growing, then you can help knock down the disease, and do that without hurting healthy cells,” Eck said, adding that this has been borne out in all of the company’s early studies.
Eck sees the real value, however, coming from tie-ups that could result in combo treatments that put the tumor under stress while at the same time blocking the AXL pathway and allowing the immune system to get in on the fight.
He said the drug is pharmacologically stable and highly selective, meaning in early models it hasn’t produced major side effects. It's also easily manufactured, he said. It’s set to be studied as a monotherapy and in combo with I-O medications, across a range of cancers, including the difficult-to-treat pancreatic and ovarian cancers, as well as some blood and breast cancers.
Investors: Series A and grants from Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas, 3E Bioventures and Sky Kingdom Capital.