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Xilis believes cultivating micro-tumors may hold the key to more effective cancer treatments

Jonathan Shieber
Lung cancer in a patient. Photo courtesy of Flickr/<span>Oregon State University</span>
Lung cancer in a patient. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Oregon State University

Despite near-miraculous advances in the treatment of cancer in the U.S. and around the world, the disease remains the second leading cause of death in America.

The problem is that every manifestation of the disease is unique to the patient that is afflicted by it, because everyone's body is actually different. Most cancer treatments are determined by their ability to cure the largest population afflicted with a particular cancer type.

As understanding of the disease has advanced, more targeted treatments are coming to market to treat particular types of the disease. And now, Xilis has developed a process that its founders hope will make those treatments even more effective.

Founded by Xiling Shen and Dr. David Hsu, two Duke University professors and researchers, the company's technology is based on research conducted by the Dutch research scientist Hans Clevers. Clevers, who won the Breakthrough Prize for life sciences in 2004 and serves on the board of directors of Roche, helped refine a technique for growing small versions of human organs for research.

Shen and Hsu have taken that research and advanced it, developing a process that can cultivate and sustain tumors from a cancer patient -- allowing physicians and pharmaceutical companies to develop even more tailored treatments that can respond to the particular type of cancer.

"Our technology creates 10,000 micro tumors from a single cancer biopsy which then tests which cancer treatments will or won’t work for a patient, saving them critical time in his/her cancer treatment plan," said Shen in a statement. "Already in clinical trials, we have data showing our technology can successfully predict treatment success and finding new therapy for drug resistant patients."

Shen and his co-founder first initiated clinical trials on their new discovery early in 2019. Their results were so promising that the two decided to form a company around the innovation and raise capital to accelerate the time-to-clinic so that patients could reap the benefits of these more targeted therapies.

Indeed, the technology is so compelling that Clevers, the progenitor of the company's technology, has agreed to join the company as a co-founder and collaborate on future development, according to an interview with Shen.

"What we have invented is this microfluidics droplet," says Shen. "We’re growing miniature organoids so these cancer cells are growing in a 3D tumor micro environment."

To accelerate the commercialization of the technology, Xilis has raised $3 million in seed funding from investors including Felicis Ventures, an early investor in the multibillion-dollar cancer treatment technology developer Guardant Health, former NFL superstar Joe Montana's Liquid 2 Ventures fund, along with Pear and 8VC.

While the near-term value of the company's technology is in its ability to better target therapies for patients, longer term, there's value in the data set that the company is amassing. "We're accumulating a micro-organoid bank that pharma would love to test these things on," says Shen.

The potential to save pharmaceutical companies millions of dollars to do initial testing on how effective a treatment is can't be overlooked, according to Shen. Using the technology, pharma companies "can do massive drug screening at a much higher throughput with a much lower cost."