Cambridge gains KuDOS

May 21, 1999

Research by cancer specialists at Cambridge University is to be commercialised via a Pounds 5 million start-up. Kam Patel reports

A cancer treatment company has been launched by Cambridge University after securing Pounds 5 million in backing from investors.

KuDOS Pharmaceuticals, which has just moved into new laboratories and offices at the university's science park, is aiming to commercialise research by cancer scientists based at the university's Wellcome Cancer Research Campaign Laboratory. It has raised an exceptionally large sum for a firm at such an early stage in its development.

KuDOS chief executive Barrie Ward says the scale of the backing for the start-up is an indication of investors' confidence in the company's potential.

He points out that start-ups in the biotechnology field, particularly those emanating from universities, usually manage to secure only about Pounds 250,000 in backing to begin with.

Cancer treatments such as radiotherapy can kill normal cells almost as effectively as they do cancer cells. In addition there can be severe side-effects for the patient. KuDOS aims to develop a more subtle treatment based on its strength in understanding the mechanism of DNA repair, a natural bodily process that occurs in cells to repair DNA damaged through wear and tear.

Healthy cells, says Dr Ward, typically have several mechanisms of DNA repair, but evidence so far suggests that cancer cells have fewer, maybe even just one.

Work at the Wellcome Cancer Research Campaign Laboratory, led by Steve Jackson, has focused on developing techniques that inhibit DNA repair systems.

By creating a drug that specifically inhibits the DNA repair system operating in cancer cells, the dosages used for radiotherapy could be substantially reduced to avoid damage to healthy cells. Damaged cancer cells, with no DNA repair system to fall back on because of the effect of the inhibitor, would then die.

Dr Ward says that in the long run, if research at KuDOS is successful, it may even be possible to develop a drug that is such a powerful inhibitor of cancer cells' DNA repair machinery that the cells are killed outright without the need for radiotherapy.

"These are the aims and it's going to take a long time to get there but the hope is that we can, through these novel treatments, reduce or perhaps help end the need for really quite brutal treatments like radiotherapy and chemotherapy. Surgery is often kinder than these treatments."

KuDOS's plan is that if it does find suitable DNA repair inhibitors it will take them to the first stage of clinical trials. If these prove successful it will be looking for partners to take the drugs on to further trials.

Backing for KuDOS has come from venture capitalists Advent (Pounds 2 million), Schroders (Pounds 1.5 million) and 3i Cambridge (Pounds 1.5 million). For Dr Ward, taking the helm at KuDOS is an "exciting and challenging" return to the United Kingdom after five years in the United States spent managing the biotechnology firm Virus Research Institute. That company merged last year with another biotechnology specialist, TCell, to form Avant Immunotherapeutics.

Dr Ward, former director of the Glaxo (now Glaxo Wellcome) microbiology division, says: "There are lots of people with lots of ideas in the biosciences. What we are really lacking in the sector in Britain are people with the skills and experience to manage these companies."

Dr Ward says that, while the US is more entrepreneurial, the culture in the UK is beginning to change, especially in biotechnology. But he warns there is a widespread misconception that one of the great strengths of small biotechnology firms is that they can do things bigger companies cannot.

"That attitude really surprised me. People within and without the industry, I feel, have raised unrealistic expectations. Where small companies have an advantage is that they can orient their research direction more quickly, but then large firms have an awful lot of resources they can bring to bear on new directions if they want to. The future is bright for the sector, and by all means let's be optimistic about its prospects, but not at the expense of completely losing touch with reality."

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