Company of the Month: LIfT Biosciences
Alex Blyth is CEO of LIfT Biosciences. He’s a Biologist and Economist with over 20 years’ experience in bringing novel biopharma products to market, but the journey to forming LIfT BioSciences was a very personal one. After watching his own mother die of pancreatic cancer, and seeing how the drugs she was given failed to help, he began questioning some of the fundamental ideas behind how we treat cancer.
New ways of thinking about cancers
At the heart of LIfT’s solution are two inventive ideas: that some people get tumours because their innate immune system is primed for this by having the wrong type of neutrophil present; and that a patient can be infused with N1a – a superior cancer-killing type of neutrophil – manufactured from exceptional donors’ stem cells.
Neutrophils – a type of white blood cell – are one of the body’s first responders when fighting an infection. As Alex explains, the prevailing thinking has been that a person’s balance of neutrophils (and thus their ability to fight cancer) is damaged by the presence of a tumour:
“If you look at the literature, people think that neutrophils just differ based on a tumour microenvironment, and that the neutrophils are a victim of the tumour. But the massive realisation was that, actually, the reason many people get tumours in the first place is because they have defective neutrophils. That was a surprising discovery.”
This realisation came from looking at the work of US-based Professor Zheng Cui, who had shown in a study of mice that the cells appearing to have the most impact on the ability to fight off cancers were granulocytes (the group of white blood cells which neutrophils are part of), that this was something that could be passed on genetically, and that a transfusion of granulocytes from a mouse with superior innate immunity can eradicate a tumour in a normal nude mouse.
Forming LIfT Biosciences
Alex teamed up with Prof Cui in 2016 to test whether the mouse study could be applied to humans. Their human study looked at people with no family history of cancer to test their natural ‘immunity’ to cancer:
“We found that, yes, it did come through that there was huge variance in the population. Some people can kill 95% of, say, pancreatic cancer cells, within a couple of days, where other people might only kill 5%. Importantly, we also found that we could take stem cells from those people with a higher ability to fight cancer and – in a bioreactor – artificially produce neutrophils that replicated the super-cancer-killing behaviour of the donor. Essentially, this showed that we could create a scalable product.”
The product – N-LIfT (Neutrophil based Leukocyte Infusion Therapy) – is the world’s first neutrophil-based cancer therapeutic product, and is patented.
The focus is on orphan solid tumours – rare cancers where treatment options are currently very limited – such as pancreatic cancer and non-small cell lung cancer:
“Pancreatic cancer has the highest death rate after three years and average mortality of around six months. Non-small cell lung cancer is the biggest killer in cancer in terms of volume, with squamous cell being the hardest subsection to treat. These are the ‘dark horsemen of the apocalypse’, if you like. They’re rare, but they are the biggest killers in cancer – around 97% of the patients will die, based on current treatments.”
The team are currently completing pre-clinical work, before running their first in-human clinical trial. The aim is to demonstrate remission in high unmet-need solid tumours, including pancreatic cancer, by 2025.
The ‘trials’ of developing a novel therapy
The journey so far to bringing a completely new product to market hasn’t quite been smooth sailing. Alex cites fundraising as one challenge, where investors and funders are typically more comfortable with incremental advances to already familiar therapies.
One significant step forward came through joining MedCity’s Collaborate to Innovate Programme (LIfT have been part of all three programmes so far), where they won a grant of £100k and were paired up with King’s College London to complete a research project. This project gave them the data they needed to support their first patent application for the technology.
“As well as the funding, one thing it showed is that organisations like MedCity can really help SMEs punch above their weight. Getting to the right people in universities can be really challenging and time-consuming. Being part of Collaborate to Innovate really helped forge our ability to work with King’s College, and then also with Queen Mary University of London and others.”
In addition, they received a Merck Biopharma Speed Grant, which was crucial to their early work:
“You hear a lot about ‘big bad pharma’, but this is a story of a big pharma company coming through and helping us with the money we needed, where we were coming up against barriers with other funding streams.
I think, more broadly, there is a need for a lot more funding for SMEs with potential cures, not just University spinouts, that enables these more breakthrough curative therapies to generate the evidence they need to raise serious investment.”
Fast-forward to 2022 though, and, after demonstrating successful tumour infiltration in both pancreatic and lung tumours, LIfT has just raised £5 million in its latest investment round. Investors were then quickly rewarded with LIfT showing successful destruction of a patient’s lung cancer tumouroids, and strong superiority over Keytruda and Cisplatin (commonly used existing cancer treatments).
Building a successful company
Alex is equally open about the trial-and-error learnings of building a successful team:
“I started with a consulting-type model, where I had around ten people who were consultants to the company. But I learned that you really need a team that is fully committed. I cut back the number of people we had and went for a core full-time team, with a few consultants around that. Having recruited to some key roles, such as my Chief Scientific Officer and her team, it’s a much more effective model.
I think, for other entrepreneurs setting up, I would recommend that a few amazing key hires, who are full-time and absolutely committed to the success of the business, is much better than having a wide arsenal of semi-committed people.”
That promising study data mentioned earlier involved another piece of innovative thinking when it comes to conducting studies:
“Historically, you would use a mouse model to show both toxicity and efficacy. However, if something works well in a mouse, you’ve actually only got about 10% likelihood that you’ll see the same efficacy in cancer models. Also, human cells struggle in the alien environment of a mouse and so it is a poor model for evaluating efficacy. When it comes to solid tumours, using an organoid model – a patient’s tumour that’s been cultured up – has been shown to have up to 90% predictive power. These tumouroid models have improved so much over the last ten years that it’s time to give the mouse a break, I think.
In our case, we saw around 80-90% destruction of the tumouroids within four days. This massively outperformed the standard of care and other established therapies like Keytruda, so it was a very strong result. In fact, it’s as strong as the model can show, because the remaining 10-20% is redundancy of pigment that would lose all structural integrity and fall apart if it was in the body.”
Following on from these promising results and their successful investment round, the company is now embarking on a recruitment drive – in particular, Alex has his sights set on finding an experienced bio-entrepreneur Chairperson.
And, now that they can show the efficacy of the product, they also see opportunities for collaborating with pharmaceutical companies to see where N-LIfT can be combined with other existing therapies and be fast-tracked to get to patients sooner. Alex is laser-focused on this, as well as on the bigger picture of cancer treatments:
“I think the biggest drive is to develop an affordable curative therapy. We are now of the age when we can develop a cure for cancer – that’s very much within our grasp. And, I think, in the next 10 years we’ll move from ‘can we cure it?’ to ‘can we cure it affordably?’ That’s what we’re aiming to do.”
Find out more: liftbiosciences.com