Abel Geleta, Contributing Photographer

Yale researchers at biotech company Modifi Biosciences are developing a novel cancer therapy to treat glioblastoma — an aggressive form of brain cancer — earning them a Small Business Innovation Research award by the National Cancer Institute of the United States National Institutes of Health.

In April of this year, Modifi Bio closed a $6.4 million seed round of funding, and in July, co-founders Seth B. Herzon, professor of chemistry, and Ranjit S. Bindra, Harvey and Kate Cushing Professor of Therapeutic Radiology and Professor of Pathology, published a research article in Science disclosing the discovery and preclinical evaluation of a novel class of therapeutics for the treatment of brain cancers. 

With the Oct. 25 announcement from the National Cancer Institute that Modifi Bio has been selected for this award, the company continues on its path to move discoveries from the lab to the clinic. 

“The SBIR grant will help us develop our programs [and] further our science in that we’re able to make more room to expand our team,” said Joseph Park, vice president of corporate development & clinical affairs at Modifi Bio. “It’s going to be amazing because that’s going to pivot us to support our precision oncology platform.”

Funding from the SBIR program will allow Modifi Bio to continue development of their novel therapies and bring them closer to their goal of initiating clinical trials in brain cancer. Thus far, the compounds have demonstrated safety and efficacy in vitro and in vivo, pre-lab trials involving mice and other non-human test subjects.

The SBIR program is a highly selective and rigorous application process involving recruitment of subject matter experts to evaluate and assess the real-world potential of Modifi Bio’s treatments.

“It’s a neat process because it’s a peer review of the science and the significance of the science,” Bindra said. “It has shown our investors and community that we certainly have good science. The award is going to let us do critical experiments to tell if we have molecules ready to go in the clinic.”

Park explained the overall benefits and outcomes of this award. These incentives can help expanding startups like Modifi Bio increase their operational and personnel efforts to continue their work. More funding correlates to improved research and development capacity for Modifi Bio, since resources are invested in advancing their treatment technology.

“The SBIR program has been around for a long time and is a vital source of non-diluted funding for companies, especially in their early stages,” Bindra said. “These grants help us in achieving milestones that would otherwise be difficult to attain.” 

In addition to the financial support provided by the SBIR program, the NCI provides mentoring and networking support to recipients of this grant in order to mitigate any challenges and obstacles companies may face in bringing lab-developed therapeutic treatment to cancer patients. 

The overall objective of the SBIR is to ensure that companies such as Modifi Bio are able to capitalize on their innovative and cutting-edge research and to foster an entrepreneurial spirit in the research and development stage of medical treatments.

“This award provides some of the financial resources needed to carry out IND-enabling [investigational new drug] studies,” said Seth Herzon. 

Due to the high cost of development to evaluate the efficacy and validity of these treatments, financial constraints pose a significant obstacle for many companies in these stages of development. In addition to understanding the efficacy of a treatment, Herzon emphasized the significance of understanding important variables such as manufacturing, safety and recommended dose of compound as the company seeks FDA approval for their drug.

Herzon and Bindra have devoted considerable effort to targeting glioblastoma by developing techniques for selectively eradicating brain tumors without harming the surrounding healthy tissue. 

The Modifi Bio team is focused on further developing these strategies to combat the current problem with glioblastoma treatment and extending this strategy to other cancer types.

Modifi Bio recently relocated to Elm City Bioscience Center in downtown New Haven — 55 Church Street — and has continued to operate from there alongside other biotech companies in the area. 

Abel Geleta covers Yale New Haven Health (YNHH) for the Science and Technology desk at the News. Previously, he covered stories and topics at the intersection of Science and Social Justice. Originally from Ethiopia, Abel has lived in northern Virginia for the past 12 years. He is currently a junior in Berkeley college studying History of Science, Medicine and Public Health as a scholar in the Global Health Studies Program