A drug that could help treat one of the most aggressive forms of brain cancer is moving closer to reality due to work by Westchester-based Sapience Therapeutics Inc.
Sapience, a company that develops therapeutics to address difficult-to-treat cancers, entered into an exclusive licensing agreement with Columbia University in April to develop ST-36, a protein-based compound discovered at Columbia.
ST-36 targets a factor that activates particular genes and may play an important role in allowing certain cells to become cancerous. Administered intravenously, ST-36 could prevent the activation of these genes in tumors, which results in tumor-specific cell death. The treatment selectively targets a protein that promotes the growth of many types of tumors including glioblastoma multiforme, the most severe form of brain cancer.
“It’s rapid and it’s fatal,” Barry Kappel, founder and CEO of Sapience, said of the disease. “You’re a normal person one day, and the next day, something is wrong. So you go to the doctor and find out you have a tumor the size of a tennis ball on your brain, and your life just is changed.”
Kappel, a former senior vice president for business development at ContraFect Corp. in Yonkers who founded Sapience in 2015 and runs the company from a Scarsdale office, said the drug could potentially treat other high-mortality and common cancers, including prostate and breast cancers.
The potential for the anti-cancer therapy helped the company raise $22.5 million in Series A financing last year to fund the development of ST-36.
“It was a really good validation of the work we’d done at Columbia and the belief in our company to take what is a very important scientific molecule and make it into a drug,” Kappel said of the venture-capital funding. Kappel spent five months in 2015 as executive in residence at Columbia Technology Ventures.
The company’s drug development program applies scientific research from academia to create novel therapies and drugs that are ready for submission to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“We’ve sort of let the universities do the first part for us,” Kappel said. “We like to work on that translation – we call it translational medicine – translating something from the bench to the bedside, so from the lab to the clinic.”
The company focuses on developing treatments likely to be ready for clinical trials within two years. Sapience could be ready to submit an investigational new drug application for ST-36 to the FDA within 18 months, Kappel said.
The company also focuses on developing drugs that address “a strong unmet need in the industry,” he said. “We’re looking for diseases that even with the current standard of care, about 50 percent of people are still dying. We don’t just develop drugs for anything. We develop drugs for very important indications.”
For patients diagnosed with glioblastoma, the five-year survival rate is less than 5 percent. The median length of survival for patients who undergo surgery, radiation and chemotherapy is between 12 to 15 months.
“We’re hoping to make a difference in that,” Kappel said.
Kappel said that desire to make a difference has always guided his career. After graduating from Emory University with a degree in chemistry, he was drawn to the drug development side of the medical industry. He received his doctoral degree in immunology and pharmacology but the economic climate at the time of his graduation and a sparked interest in business led Kappel to pursue an MBA from Cornell University.
“It’s really been a solid career progression, but the end goal is to help people and change lives,” he said. “The means to do it has just changed along the way.”
Prior to launching Sapience, Kappel played an integral part in the founding of ContraFect, an 8-year-old biotechnology company developing antibody and other treatments for life-threatening infectious diseases. As head of business development, he was involved in all aspects of the company, from financing activities to licensing technologies and developing a corporate strategy.
Kappel said he originally intended Sapience “to be completely virtual, meaning no lab space whatsoever,” but an opening at New York Medical College’s BioInc@NYMC biotech incubator at its Valhalla campus was an opportunity that proved too good to pass up. Sapience, which has four employees and seven consultants, became a tenant at the incubator last July.
“It’s very cost-effective. It’s a good set-up for a company like ours,” Kappel said. “It was worth it for us to take a lab bench, along with all the common space, to accomplish our goals. It’s a lot cheaper, and there’s a lot more rapid turnaround. It’s very convenient for us.”
Sapience is focused on developing drugs based on research from the New York area, Kappel said, adding that Westchester is home to a wealth of strong scientific work.
“It’s not San Francisco, it’s not Boston, but we have a lot of really interesting work going on here that is unrecognized because of the lack of biotechnology industry in this area. But I think companies like this – and other ones that are going to grow – are going to find a lot of great work coming out of our area.”
While Sapience is actively looking for additional molecules to develop into drug treatments, Kappel stressed that any additional programs would only be brought on if they were “a good fit.”
“We have a lot of money to support this (ST-36) program to go on for quite a while,” he said. “If we bring on other programs, we would probably finance those accordingly, but I’m OK with just having this molecule.”