The future of cancer treatment is going to look very different from the present.
Current approaches — such as chemotherapy treatments — could give way to strategies such as targeted immunotherapy that helps your body’s immune system to fight off cancer.
UPMC, and the research team at the Hillman Cancer Center, are betting big on this approach by investing $20 million in an immunotherapy startup called Novasenta, spun out of the innovation and venture capital arm UPMC Enterprises.
“The new wave of treating cancers is by boosting the body’s immune cells — your own immune cells — to go and attack tumors,” says Mani Mohindru, CEO of Novasenta. An added benefit is that the treatment doesn’t have the harsh side effects of chemotherapy.
Novasenta will be based at the Pittsburgh Technology Center‘s newest building, The Riviera, in South Oakland along the Monongahela River. Other tenants include NeuBase Therapeutics and BlueSphere Bio, creating a mini-cluster of local life science startups with potential for growth. Novasenta currently employs 11 people.
“We can have both a full-fledged state-of-the-art lab and an office space here,” explains Mohindru. “It’s just the right place; the scientists can look at the river and continue to work, which I can tell you, is not the norm. So it’s a beautiful place to be doing some good science.”
The building isn’t the only advantage that Pittsburgh provides.
“Coming from New York, and looking at the Pittsburgh ecosystem, the Hillman Cancer Center is there, so access to human tumor tissues is great,” says Mohindru.
Novasenta also employs computational and experimental biologists from the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and UPMC. Novasenta was started in late 2018 by physicians and scientists Robert Ferris, Dario Vignali and Greg Delgoffe, who all currently work at the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center and Pitt.
Novasenta expects to launch its first clinical trial by the end of 2023.
“For science to flourish and be funded, you can have great ideas, but if you don’t have the right amount of funding and backing, it is hard to execute some of these ideas,” says Mohindru.