This Cincinnati Startup is Innovating Targeted Cancer Treatments

How a Cincinnati Children’s Hospital spinout wants to make chemotherapy more effective

Cincinnati is deservedly earning a reputation for its exciting financial technology companies. The city comes by its fintech roots honestly, with the likes of U.S. Bank, Fifth Third, PNC, First Financial and others all headquartered in the Queen City. But with all that banking and finance going on, it’s easy to forget that Cincinnati is known for its cutting-edge healthcare as well. And thanks to research from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, one of the area’s most exciting startups is pioneering new cancer treatments. Kurome Therapeutics is working on novel treatments that stop cancer cells from adapting to chemotherapy, improving results and extending lives.

“Kurome is a preclinical stage therapeutics company — which means that we’re developing drugs as opposed to developing diagnostics or medical devices — and we are working on drugs that will subvert the ability of cancer cells to avoid chemotherapy and targeted therapy, which is a big problem in cancer treatment,” said President and CEO Jan Rosenbaum. “When people are treated for cancer, they start on a particular therapy and after a while, the regimen doesn’t work anymore because the cancer cells develop escape mechanisms to avoid the treatment. If the drug goes to a specific target in the cancer cell, the cancer cell will mutate so that it now can avoid that target.”

Kurome’s project may have a very specific goal, but as is the case with most cancer treatments, each innovation is crucial for those fighting the disease. The startup’s treatment targets a specific pathway that inhibits its ability to tell cancer cells how to adapt to chemotherapy treatments. The treatment has already shown that it can improve survival rates and extend lives in animal experiments, which could lead to a significant impact if replicated in humans.

“Acute myeloid leukemia is a disease in older people and there are unique problems when treating older patients,” she said. “Part of the problem is that older people are susceptible to a lot of diseases and the older they get, the more frail they are and the more drugs that they’re on. Not only is it a disease that hits older people, but it’s a disease that’s very costly and has a very high mortality rate — we lose 50 percent of these patients every year, no matter what we treat them with. For years, there was no new way to treat them. That changed about five years ago when people started identifying targeted therapies, which act as if the cancer has a bullseye on it. We have the potential to extend the survival time of patients because fewer are developing resistance, allowing people to live longer and extend quality of life with the disease, and that’s a huge impact.”

Rosenbaum says Cincinnati’s wealth of talent and researchers deserves a huge amount of credit for Kurome’s development. The startup’s process was designed after research by Dan Starczynowski, a professor at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital who has been studying immune signaling pathways for years. The hospital asked Rosenbaum to take Starczynowski’s concepts from research to commercialization, and Kurome was born.

“I think one of the things that has to be stressed for this particular company is the phenomenal talent of the team,” Rosenbaum said. “We brought together some scientists that are just stellar. And when we don’t have expertise on either the scientific side or on the business side, we’ve been able to find the right people who are excited to help us. That comes from the community here in Cincinnati and the connections those people have. I’ve been with other organizations and companies through various consulting gigs and experiences, and if you don’t have that talent base, you don’t succeed.”

That depth of talent and access to innovators isn’t unique to Kurome’s project. For Rosenbaum, the collaboration that led to this startup is part of the DNA of Cincinnati, an innovative and burgeoning entrepreneurial scene that grows stronger by the day.

“In Cincinnati, it’s the quality of the talent that makes this particular project possible and there’s an environment here that supports it,” said Rosenbaum. “We’ve got the medical talent, we’ve got the research talent and we’re improving the depth of investment capital. Cincinnati has done a phenomenal job of attracting it over the last several years. And on our team, this is a group of people who are collaborating together and understand the drug development process and are completely focused on turning this into something that can help patients. That’s a unique situation, because you often don’t find it in academia. So the talent’s there to support this project, it’s cheaper to live here than the coasts — even the commute is easy.”

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