Nohla Therapeutics is working to improve the use of umbilical-cord blood and its application in helping patients at risk of low white-cell counts from chemotherapy.
With decades of research and a handful of successful clinical trials behind it, a biotechnology startup is launching Thursday to work on improving the use of umbilical-cord blood in stem-cell transplants.
The new company, Nohla Therapeutics, grows out of cell-therapy research at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. The company’s work focuses on the processing of cord blood, which can be used for stem-cell transplants as an alternative to bone marrow, and as a product for patients at risk of low white-blood-cell counts resulting from chemotherapy.
Stem-cell transplants, whether from bone marrow or cord blood, are the only known cure for many forms of blood cancers such as leukemia and lymphomas.
Nohla will be run by Australian native Benjamin Bergo. He previously was executive chairman for an Australian preclinical-stage, stem-cell expansion company called Cytomatrix Limited.
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Nohla’s office is down the street from the Hutch on Eastlake Avenue East, and it expects to close a $20 million investment round in December. Investors are still undisclosed.
The Hutch was the world’s first bone-marrow-transplant facility and has researchers working to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer, HIV/AIDS and other diseases.
The center has made a number of breakthroughs in developing therapies that use the immune system to defeat cancer. Some of that research led to the launch of one of the largest biotech startups ever in Washington — Juno Therapeutics, which opened two years ago and went public last year, raising $264 million.
Nohla has an exclusive licensing agreement with the Hutch for the next 20 years as well as a five-year collaboration agreement for continued research, for which Nohla will pay the Hutch $1.5 million per year.
Nohla has nine employees between Seattle and Australia; Cytomatrix was folded into the new U.S.-based company.
Bergo, who moved to Seattle to run Nohla, said he expects it to expand to 30 employees by mid-2016, with at least 25 in Seattle.
Stem-cell transplants with umbilical-cord blood have been common for decades and are a welcome alternative to bone-marrow transplants because cord blood — left in the placenta and umbilical cord after birth — doesn’t require the extremely close genetic matching of a donor’s bone marrow, known as human leukocyte antigen (HLA) typing.
That is where the name of the new company, Nohla, comes from: no HLA.
Only about a cup of cord blood can be harvested from a birth, an amount reduced to 5 teaspoons after processing. Of that, less than 1 percent consists of usable stem cells, says Dr. Colleen Delaney, who will be Nohla’s chief medical officer. She has been researching cord-blood transplants for 15 years at the Hutch.
Because of the small amount, a transplant can take much longer to take hold, leaving the patient with low white-blood-cell counts and vulnerable to potentially fatal infections for about a month after the transplant, Delaney said.
She and her colleagues, however, found a way to multiply the number of stem cells present in one unit of cord blood. During a trial that started in 2006, patients’ white-blood-cell counts recovered in 11 days instead of 25 days.
“That trial was a home run,” she said.
The Hutch has conducted six trials on more than 100 patients, finding that not only can cord blood be used in stem-cell transplants, but it can also be processed, stored and ready for anyone who needs protection while their white-blood-cell counts are down from chemo. No genetic matching is needed.
“We don’t do transplants for breast cancer. We don’t do transplants for quite a few solid tumors,” Delaney said about expanding the use of cord blood beyond stem-cell transplants. “Anyone who gets chemo is at risk for their white cell count falling to nothing.”
Delaney said her goal for the company and the product is to have it available for anyone with complications resulting from low white-blood-cell count.
”We are developing a truly off-the-shelf product, like an aspirin,” she said.