Portland immunotherapy startup tops $10M in funding as it launches first clinical trial

Veana Therapeutics Founder and CEO Emmanuel Akporiaye. (Veana Therapeutics Photo)

In 2008, Emmanuel Akporiaye left a tenured position at the University of Arizona to move across the country and launch a new biotechnology startup, aiming to make a less toxic cancer treatment. It was a risky bet, but ten years later Akporiaye and his startup Veana Therapeutics are on the road to success.

Veana just raised its first venture funding, a $542,000 “seed” round that brings its total funding to more than $10 million, Akporiaye told GeekWire. Previous funds came from a friends and family round and research grants from organizations including the NIH.

The new money will fund the first clinical trial of Veana’s lead drug candidate, Vimo — a derivative of vitamin E that could make cutting-edge cancer immunotherapy drugs more effective, without the toxic side effects of chemo.

Akporiaye said that Vimo works by attacking “the mitochondria of rapidly dividing cells to kill them. When they die, they release proteins that stimulate the immune system,” he said.

Although Vimo does kill cancer cells on its own, it works best alongside a checkpoint inhibitor — a kind of immunotherapy that fights cancer by stops cancer cells from blocking the immune system.

By sending out biological signals that a cancer cell has died, Vimo stimulates the immune system to continue attacking the cells, making it a perfect treatment partner for checkpoint inhibitors. It could be used to treat a variety of cancers that are currently treated with checkpoint inhibitors.

Akporiaye said the drug hasn’t shown any sign of toxic side effects, like those common for chemotherapy, and it comes in the form of an easy-to-take pill,

The new clinical trial, taking place at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, will study Vimo when it is taken with a leading checkpoint inhibitor, like Merck’s Keytruda. That drug that is best known for curing former president Jimmy Carter of advanced brain and liver cancer. The trial is the first step towards the drug hitting the market.

Vimo was a long time in the making. Akporiaye, who is originally from Nigeria, began work on it more than ten years ago when he was a researcher and the interim immunobiology department chair at the University of Arizona. He had multiple personal experiences with loved ones going through cancer treatment and was inspired to looking at Vitamin E as a potential source for a non-toxic treatment.

Over several years, he moved to Portland’s Providence Cancer Center and developed a vitamin E derivative called α-TEA, which he fine-tuned into Vimo. He founded Veana in 2012 and still serves as the company’s CEO.

Part of Akporiaye’s motivation was a cancer diagnosis that hit close to home: Two years ago, his wife Rebecca was diagnosed with early-stage cancer. Although it wasn’t life-threatening, her treatment left a stark impact on Akporiaye.

“I went through the process of chemo with her. I could see the impact on the patient: The process, the time it takes to do it, the side effects after doing it, both immediate and long-term,” he said. “I saw all of those. So it just re-energized me.”

Veana Therapeutics is based in Portland, Ore., and currently has 4 full-time employees.

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