Duke Spinout Xilis Secures $70M for Unique Precision Cancer Drug Testing
Durham-based Xilis has raised $70 million in Series A financing to advance its precision oncology platform.
The round was led by Mubadala Capital and joined by multiple companies including GV (formerly Google Ventures) and Durham’s Duke Angel Network, topping its previous $3 million seed round.
The 2-year-old precision health company used its founders’ unique MicroOrganoSphere (MOS) technology to determine the most effective treatment plan for cancer patients. The MOS platform generates miniature, patient-derived tumors from a biopsy, which are then examined against many cancer drugs. Similar tests have been done against malignant epithelial cells (cancerous cells that line the surface of the body) or in tumor microenvironments, but this is the first to test both at the same time, including the original immune cells.
MOS derived from organoid technology developed by co-founder Hans Clevers, M.D., Ph.D. Organoids are human tissues grown in a gel that behave as they do in the body. Essentially, they are out-of-body organs which can be a testing base for drugs. However, organoids are large and take months to grow. With the additional work of David Hsu, Ph.D., and Xiling Shen, Ph.D., the three co-founders developed MOS, an entire cancer environment in droplet form. These tissues grow quickly and are ready to test on within days. Because of their minuscule size and high volume, they are cheaper to test on than organoids, and more drugs can be tested on them.
Using a proprietary algorithm, Xilis can identify the potency of each drug on a patient’s unique cancer environment in less than two weeks. Then, doctors and patients will receive the Xilis Response Score, a breakdown of each drug’s efficacy on the cancer cells. Using these quantitative data, oncologists can make a more-informed decision on a patient’s treatment plan based on the knowledge of how the patient’s cancer responded to specific therapies.
“The overall goal of our company is to help cancer patients. You hear a lot of people say this, but we are in a position to do that by running the proper clinical trials,” says Hsu in an interview with the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. “At the end of the day, the goal is to provide each cancer patient with the best treatment possible.”
There are so many ways to treat cancer, and while experience can help doctors provide proper care, each patient’s cancer is different. It can take months to discover if a drug is working, and if it isn’t, a new therapy must be prescribed. The MOS platform helps avoid the time and money spent on ineffective treatments and limits the trial-and-error process for doctors.
The new funding will go toward advancing MOS technology, advancing AI capabilities, funding clinical studies and validating MOS technology with biopharma partners. More specifically, Shen, who is also the chief executive officer, says he wants to improve the AI which predicts a patient’s response to treatment and offer MOS technology in drug development.
“About 95% of oncology drugs fail in clinical trials,” he says. “Most drugs fail in Phase 1 and Phase 2, which on average, takes four years and $600 million. We are offering a 3D patient-derived model for high-throughput screening,” or large-scale testing. This gives researchers the ability to test many pre-clinical cancer drugs on patient tumors, as well as in proof of concept. When it comes time to enter clinical trials, MOS testing offers an alternative to animal testing, leading to more accurate, ethically produced results.
“In the early stages, MOS helps pick the rights drugs to go to trials,” Shen says. “In the later stages, it de-risks the trials, which makes drugs cheaper and get to patients faster.”
Additionally, immunotherapies can be tested on MOS because they contain a patient’s original immune cells.
The cost-effective and outcomes-driven technology allows for better quality of life on multiple levels. Effective drug selection can lead to increased time on chemotherapy and improved clinical outcomes. This can translate to more time spent with family and friends. In the future, Xilis hopes to predict a treatment’s side effects and toxicity on a patient before the drug enters their body.
“We are focusing on colorectal cancer in the beginning,” says Hsu. “But we believe our technology will be applicable to all cancer types and beneficial to all cancer patients.”
Over the next three years, Xilis will be working through the clinical trial process to establish their assay as the standard care.
Hsu and Shen thanked their investors for Xilis’ early success. The two co-founders, who are professors at Duke University, also credit the supportive environment of entrepreneurship that Duke has shown.