See the 14-slide pitch deck that Meliora Therapeutics used to raise $11 million toward its search for more precise and effective cancer treatments
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- Cancer treatments are difficult to develop and bring to market — the vast majority of them fail.
- The biotech Meliora Therapeutics says we don’t know how some cancer drugs actually work in the body.
- The company raised an $11 million seed round to build an AI meant to predict why drugs might work.
Cancer treatments are difficult to develop. By one estimate, about 97% of new cancer drugs fail in clinical trials and don’t come to market, though investments into new cancer treatments were at an all-time high in 2021.
In the view of Meliora Therapeutics CEO David Li, the underlying problem behind many of these failures is a lack of understanding around the true mechanism of action of cancer treatments. These mechanisms are the exact biochemical process through which a drug has an effect on the body.
“Mechanism is not often the primary focus of drug developers when they’re developing a molecule,” Li said, adding that new treatments were often allowed to move forward because they’re safe and seemed to be killing cancer cells — but that doesn’t necessarily translate into a full understanding of exactly what a drug is doing. That means that even if a drug works to treat a certain kind of cancer, it may not be as effective as it could be if researchers knew exactly how it was working and focused on that function.
Meliora Therapeutics was founded last year in Silicon Valley to tackle this issue. The company, founded by Li, a cancer biologist named Jason Sheltzer, and a Google engineer named Joan Smith, plans to look to machine learning and artificial intelligence to try to figure out the true mechanisms of oncology treatments.
The company was born out of an academic paper authored by Sheltzer in Science Translational Medicine in 2019. The paper seemed to show that researchers might be going after the wrong targets when developing a type of new cancer treatment called targeted therapy, which aims to precisely kill the genes and proteins that cancer cells need to live and multiply. Sheltzer and his colleagues used CRISPR technology, a gene-editing tool, to remove what was thought to be an essential cancer-spreading gene in cancer cells — but the cells kept growing. Sheltzer ran the same experiment across other drugs and found the same result, even though the drugs were still successfully treating the cancer in patients.
His team found that while the drugs were effective in doing what they were supposed to do, the reason they were effective was mischaracterized. This mischaracterization could have resounding effects: Other researchers could end up focusing on the wrong target when developing drugs, and that could then lead to more clinical-trial failures.
“The industry is changing,” Li said. “The industry is recognizing that computational tools can help in narrowing the search space or narrowing the kind of number of wet lab experiments that are necessary to be successful at each of these successive stages of the value chain.”
Meliora announced on September 29 that it had raised an $11 million seed round led by HOF Capital and ZhenFund. Obvious Ventures, Village Global, Pebblebed, and the ArsenalBio cofounder Michael Polansky, among others, also participated.
Li said that while Meliora’s main focus was to find and develop promising cancer treatments in-house, the company was also looking at opportunities to use its platform to partner with drug developers.