UNC startup secures $12.5 million investment

A startup company at UNC-Chapel Hill has received $12.5 million in venture capital funding to help ease the toxic side effects of chemotherapy and radiation in cancer patients.

G1 Therapeutics, a company based on discoveries made at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, will use the funds to launch human drug trials aimed at decreasing the damage done to bone marrow by common cancer chemotherapies and radiation. Funds are being invested from MedImmune Venture Partners and Hatteras Venture Partners.

“At Carolina, it’s not enough to make important scientific discoveries. We constantly work to translate them into products that improve people’s lives,” says Vice Chancellor for Research Barbara Entwisle. “G1 Therapeutics got its start at UNC Lineberger here in Chapel Hill, and this critical funding will bring us closer to bone marrow protection in chemotherapy patients and more effective treatment of radiation poisoning.”

Chemotherapy works by killing cells in the body that are dividing. Because cancer cells are constantly dividing, they are preferentially killed during the therapy. But cancer cells are not the only cells in the body that divide. For example, cells in the bone marrow divide to create red and white blood cells as well as platelets. Chemotherapy can’t tell the difference between dividing cancer and dividing bone marrow cells and it kills them both, leading to side effects.

With this investment, G1 plans to initiate the clinical development of novel drugs that cause certain groups of bone marrow cells to temporarily stop dividing, camouflaging them from chemotherapy. In previous studies using mice, this process, which has been termed pharmacological quiescence, protected all the normal cells of blood, including platelets, red cells and white cells. The hope is that pharmacological quiescence will have the same benefit for the bone marrow of humans being treated with chemotherapy for cancer.

“Protecting a patient’s bone marrow from the DNA damaging effects of chemotherapy over the course of their treatment would be really important. This could translate into greater dose intensity, fewer transfusions and an overall improved quality of life for patients with certain types of cancer,” says Dr. Ned Sharpless, Wellcome Distinguished Professor of Cancer Research, professor of medicine and genetics, and UNC Lineberger’s deputy director.

Sharpless is co-founder of G1 Therapeutics along with Dr. Kwok-Kin Wong, scientific director at the Belfer Institute for Applied Cancer Science at Harvard Medical School’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. The company was founded in 2008 with help from Carolina Kickstart, a UNC program that works to turn university research into new companies.

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Published October 16, 2013.