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Professor Laura Itzhaki - Polyprox Therapeutics

Discovering and developing novel biopharmaceuticals for the treatment of cancer

 

If you told Professor Laura Itazhaki what an exciting journey she would be on, bringing a new class of drugs to the market based on ten years of research and intellectual property, she would be amazed.

Professor Laura Itzhaki said:

“I had this idea for the development of a new type of drug that is able to address hard-to-drug targets and trigger the natural degradation machinery contained within the cell to arrest tumour growth. I was soon to discover the intensive process involved in developing it. I am learning so much on my entrepreneurial journey; every day is different, and I have the chance to work with many incredible people.

As I have had a tremendous amount of support from Cambridge Enterprise and from the company’s management co-founders Andy Sandham (Executive Chairman) and Dr Kevin Moulder (COO) (both hugely inspirational and serial Cambridge biotech entrepreneurs), compared to earlier innovators, I do feel that I have had it quite easy.

Entrepreneurship programmes like the Impulse Programme make a difference and are extremely valuable”

Polyprox Therapeutics raised in April 2019 £3.4million of seed capital to develop a new class of drugs, call Polyproxin™ molecules. 

Professor Laura Itzhaki started life in Manchester having had an inspirational chemistry teacher. She went to Oxford University and studied chemistry and in her final-year research project with Professor Sir Chris Dobson she became interested in protein folding. Sir Chris Dobson, who recently passed away, was an incredible mentor throughout Laura’s scientific career.

In 1989 Laura came to Cambridge and did a PhD protein folding in the Biochemistry Department under an inspiring supervisor, Dr Phil Evans. At that time research into protein folding was limited to proteins that could be extracted from natural sources – in her case, spinach, guinea-pig milk and urine, but at the same time Sir Alan Fersht (Emeritus Professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge) was developing microbiology techniques whereby you could make whatever protein you required. In particular, she had read papers by Alan showing the power of this approach when applied to protein folding.

In 1993 she carried out her Post Doc in protein engineering with Sir Alan Fersht at the MRC Centre for Protein Folding and Design in the Chemistry Department at Cambridge. He created an incredible environment; her training was extremely rigorous and international as he is one of the of the world's leading protein scientists.

After a series of individual fellowships Professor Laura Itzhaki set up her own group focused on protein folding and understanding how proteins function in the cell. In 2003 she joined the Medical Research Council’s Cancer Cell Unit on the Cambridge Addenbrookes site which was aimed at translational research.

In 2011 Professor Laura Itzhaki moved back to the Chemistry Department and in 2013 she obtained a lectureship in the Pharmacology Department. It was a struggle to get the initial funding for her work on proteins that are easy to design which eventually led to the development of the company. But finally, in 2016, she received funding from Cancer Research UK called a Pioneer Award; to obtain this award she had to write a proposal and pitch. This award enabled the research to go ahead with two people in the lab Dr Albert Perez-Riba and Dr Pam Rowling who are Scientific co-founders in the company.

Cambridge Enterprise (CE) were very enthusiastic about the idea, particularly Dr Christine Martin who had a great deal of experience in this area. In 2017 Christine and another CE colleague, Dr Emma Barker, helped Laura put together the “proof of concept” data and found a knowledgeable patent agent to work with her to write the patent.

In 2018, with support from Christine, Emma and a third CE colleague, Dr Phil Elstob, the company was formed and a consultant, Dr Dave Sheppard, was hired to help raise finance. This also coincided with the Impulse Programme. Professor Laura Itzhaki had previously attended a three-day bioindustry Pulse programme at the Crick Institute. However, the Impulse Programme held at the Maxwell Centre is an intensive three-month programme.

Professor Laura Itzhaki said:

“The Impulse Programme completely changed my thinking. I had never considered being an entrepreneur but now I have a totally different mindset. To hear talks by people such as Lord Karan Bilimoria, Hermann Hauser and David Cleevely is truly inspirational. I was also impressed by their humility. Although they may not be in the field of biotech the principles can still be applied. It opened my mind to a more holistic way of thinking which is different from academia. It has changed the way I formulate my business ideas.  Working with mentors who have tremendous vision is equally inspiring.

I was slightly different from a lot of the participants in the Impulse Programme as I had already had a tremendous amount of help from Cambridge Enterprise.

My mentor, Miranda Weston Smith, helped me to think about my profile, the need for self-belief and about the key elements of my pitch and what is important in developing it. The programme gave me an insight into the different forms of finance and investors and how to build a successful team.”

Putting a pitch together to raise £2.7m was a steep learning curve experience. After pitching to a couple of companies which weren’t interested as they felt it was highly speculative, in October 2018 Professor Laura Itzhaki then met venture capitalists, RT Capital, who were looking to make just this type of speculative investment. They had already evaluated her proposal and done their due diligence on her. However, they felt that £2.5m was insufficient and wanted to provide more funds so that more work could be done in the same time span. RT Capital agreed to invest and they were joined by Cambridge Innovation Capital and Cambridge Enterprise Seed Fund.

Once the investment was agreed Andrew Sandham joined the company as non-executive chairman. He is an extremely experienced entrepreneur who has been involved in numerous biotech start-up businesses. His input was invaluable; he dealt with all the business planning, legals and finance and ensured the IP was protected by filing a further 14 patents working with US and UK patent agents. We recruited Kevin Moulder as Chief Operating Officer who is extremely experienced and had been involved in a lot of relevant drug discovery companies. He had just left Tusk Therapeutics.

Professor Laura Itzhaki said;

“I am extremely lucky to have both Andrew Sandham and Kevin Moulder on board as their experience is invaluable. They have provided all the expertise in scientific development, business focus and vast network of connections that will be key to the company’s success. To bring about the commercialisation of the product Kevin also recruited a number of team members who he had worked with in the past. Having a readymade team is extremely useful.

I am also delighted to have a framework agreement in place between the company and the academic group to enable a dialogue between the two. We have grants from CRUK, BBSRC and PCRF (Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund) in the academic lab to carry out the scientific underpinning of the work.

Although I understand that it is the norm, I was surprised at the length of time it took to put the funding in place.  We agreed the funding in October 2018, but it took until April 2019 to be finalised.

We will soon need to raise Series A funding to allow us to carry out extensive testing.  Andrew Sandham is already talking to various companies. “

Laura believes if you believe in your idea and the science your proposing you need to be tenacious, optimistic and slightly driven. You must be brave and ‘give it a go’ and not think about failure. Entrepreneurship programmes such as the Impulse Programme are extremely useful to gain and reinforce your knowledge. Although entrepreneurship will have it ‘ups and downs’ it can be huge fun and stimulating.

 

Interviewed by Sue Higgins,
September 2019

 

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