Aura Biosciences Targets a New Era of Cancer Drugs

A Boston-based startup founded by a Spanish molecular biologist has devised a precise way to deliver chemotherapies inside nanotech protein shields

Elisabet de los Pinos' father always told her that molecular biology—a field that overlaps with genetics and biochemistry—would someday transform the way cancer is treated. But the Barcelona-based pediatrician never dreamed his own daughter's scientific detective work might play a crucial role.

De los Pinos, a 37-year-old Spanish molecular biologist with a master's degree in business administration, has cobbled together a new approach to delivering cancer drugs by combining unrelated discoveries from European research institutions in the fields of virology, molecular biology, advanced chemistry, and nanotechnology.

Aura Biosciences, the Boston-based company she founded, is one of 26 enterprises named Dec. 3 by the World Economic Forum as Tech Pioneers that offer new technologies or business models that could have a positive impact on peoples' lives.

The company's hollow particles, made of nano-sized protein shells, could radically improve delivery of approved cancer drugs by keeping them stable as they travel through the body towards their intended target. By allowing cancer-killing drugs to go directly to tumor cells while avoiding healthy cells, the treatment aims to reduce the unwanted side effects of chemotherapy. Plans are to apply the technology first to combat pancreatic cancer, which kills 95% of patients within five years.

copying how viruses penetrate cells

After earning a PhD in molecular biology from the University of Barcelona, a course of study that included time at Georgetown University and Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in the U.S., de los Pinos completed her MBA and post-doctoral work at the Institute of Cancer Research in London. She then went to work as a marketing executive for the oncology business unit at U.S. drug company Eli Lilly (LLY). Her job was to promote a new drug to combat lung cancer. "This new drug was really good but was really another atomic bomb, a harsh chemotherapy that was still very toxic and made patients vomit and lose their hair," she says.

De los Pinos says she wanted to work on a new generation of drugs that would be more akin to ballistic missiles, destroying only the intended targets, cancerous tumors. She wondered how advances in science might help solve this thorny issue, a problem that has puzzled researchers for decades. Through the network of European scientists she met during her postdoctoral work, de los Pintos connected with a scientist in Germany who was studying the development advantages that viruses have gained from evolution, such as the ability to infect cells as their way of survival. The scientist, who works for a research institute that does not want to be identified, hadn't thought about transferring his knowledge of viruses to the challenge of drug delivery.

His research showed that clever protein particles can mimic the way viruses penetrate cells. After conferring, de los Pinos and the German researcher realized that these protein particles could serve as protective "envelopes" for the delivery of cancer drugs.

adding nanoparticle technologies

They then started thinking about how they might direct the "envelopes" to precise addresses within the human body. De los Pinos put the German scientist in touch with researchers at Queen Mary's University of London Barts and The London School of Medicine Center for Tumor Biology. The British researchers are working on advances in the molecular biology of tumors. Their work identified signals that are expressed in malignant cells but are not present in normal cells. This enabled the discovery of a targeting peptide that works a bit like a global positioning system inside the body, efficiently directing the protein particles packed with cancer drugs to tumor cells in a highly specific way, just like programmable ballistic missiles.

Aura Biosciences licensed that work, as well as nanotechnology that helps in drug delivery, from British and French research institutes. Britain's John Innes Center Department of Biological Chemistry developed nanoparticle technology best suited for oral delivery, while the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences at France's Université François-Rabelais de Tours developed nanoparticles for drugs delivered topically or by inhalation.

A former colleague at Eli Lilly helped de los Pinos get started as an entrepreneur in January of this year. She decided to set up shop in Boston in order to attract global funding and be closer to the competition. The company has not yet begun testing its technology on humans. But encouraging preliminary results helped Aura Biosciences raise $3.5 million in financing, primarily from European angel investors, and snag a co-development agreement in November with a major pharmaceutical company. De los Pinos says she is prohibited from naming the drug company partner publicly.

The agreement is a recognition that although the company is still in the very early stages of development, "the technology is very disruptive," she says. "The impact it can have is huge."

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