Xilis: Fighting Cancer Through Micro Tumours

Founded by professors and researchers at Duke University, the company's technology generates micro tumours to test the best cancer treatments for each specific patient

02.01.2020 | by Reve Fisher
Photo by Marcelo Leal on Unsplash
Photo by Marcelo Leal on Unsplash

According to the World Health Organisation, over 18 million new cancer cases were diagnosed in 2018 alone, and 9.6 million people died from the disease that year. One in five men and one in six women will be diagnosed with cancer over the course of their lives. 

Although there have been great strides in cancer research throughout the world, the manifestation of the disease largely depends on the patients themselves. As everyone’s body is different, people with the same type of cancer may respond very differently to the same treatment.

“After decades of research, scientists now understand that patients’ tumours have genetic changes that cause cancer to grow and spread,” explained the US National Cancer Institute. “They have also learned that the changes that occur in one person’s cancer may not occur in others who have the same type of cancer. And, the same cancer-causing changes may be found in different types of cancer.”

Precision medicine, an approach that allows treatments to be selected based on a patient’s genetic understanding of a disease, may spare patients from unhelpful, unnecessary treatments. In the case of cancer, instead of selecting a treatment based on a few standardised factors, information about genetic changes in a patient’s tumours would be used to help decide which treatment may be the most effective.

Xilis, a precision medicine and oncology company, has created a method to make those treatments even more effective—next-generation organoid therapy to guide precision therapy and accelerate drug discovery for cancer patients.

Using a single biopsy from a cancer patient, Xilis creates thousands of micro tumours to guide precision medicine treatments. The micro tumours are used to test which treatments will or won’t work for a specific patient, saving time and increasing the chance of success with the cancer treatment plan. Doctors and pharmaceutical companies will be able to develop even more tailored treatments that can respond to the particular type of cancer.

The startup was founded by Xiling Shen and David Hsu, two professors and researchers at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Shen and Hsu’s technology is based on research conducted by Hans Clevers, a Dutch research scientist who won the Breakthrough Prize for life sciences in 2004. Clevers’ orignal techniques were used to cultivate small versions of human organs for research.

“What we have invented is this microfluidics droplet,” Shen said in a statement, as reported by TechCrunch. “We’re growing miniature organoids so these cancer cells are growing in a 3D tumour micro environment.”

Shen and Hsu first started clinical trials in early 2019. After receiving such promising results from their discovery, the duo decided to open a company and raise funds to accelerate their progress and get the technology to patients sooner.

In the long-term, the company is gathering a database with great potential to offer pharmaceutical companies.

“We’re accumulating a micro-organoid bank that pharma would love to test these things on,” Shen said, as pharmaceutical companies would be able to “do massive drug screening at a much higher throughput with a much lower cost.”

The technology is so innovate that Clevers himself has decided to join the company as a co-founder and collaborate on future research.

“Already in clinical trials, we have data showing our technology can successfully predict treatment success and finding new therapy for drug resistant patients,” Shen said.

Xilis has raised $3 million in seed funding from Felicis Ventures, Pear and 8VC.

“Patient care and treatment is not a perfect science and continues to elude even the greatest of minds, but it’s a problem that this team believes can and should be solved,” said Wesley Chan, partner at Felicis Ventures, in a Medium post. “We are excited to lead Xilis’s investment round and offer our heartfelt congratulations for their current success and our optimism for their mission to change the standard of care for treating cancer.”

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