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Faeth Therapeutics closes $20M seed to turn nutrition into a pillar of cancer treatment

·5 min read

A hot bowl of pad thai simmers in front of you. The taste and texture is exactly what you might expect from a quick takeout dinner, but it's not just a meal -- it’s medicine.

This hypothetical bowl of pad thai would be part of a cancer-fighting regimen created by startup Faeth Therapeutics. The meal itself would be specifically tailored to “starve your tumor” (which has been genetically scrutinized by scientists already), and work in combination with established cancer drugs and therapies. This “precision nutrition” approach to cancer treatment is admittedly new, but Faeth Therapeutics, founded in 2019, is hoping to be the first to bring this approach into the clinic.

“What really led to the founding of the company is three independent groups of world-class scientists, each realizing that we were basically ignoring a massive part of human biology and the treatment of cancer,” Anand Parikh, founder and CEO of Faeth Therapeutics tells TechCrunch.

“I jokingly call this the Manhattan Project of cancer biology. They were each approaching this problem differently, but landed on this idea that we have to change nutrition for cancer patients in order to not only potentiate existing therapeutics, but also to help develop new ones that target these nutrient vulnerabilities.”

Faeth Therapeutics announced a $20 million seed round on Tuesday. This represents the 15-person company’s first round of external financing. The round was co-led by Khosla Ventures and Future Ventures. It also includes participation from S2G Ventures, Digitalis, KdT Ventures, Agfunder, Cantos and Unshackled.

One of the first things to notice about Faeth Therapeutics is the scientific team behind it. Faeth’s co-founders include: Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of "The Emperor of All Maladies" (winner of a 2011 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction) and an oncologist at Columbia University; Lewis Cantley, director of Weill Cornell’s Meyer Cancer Center and discoverer of the PI3K signaling pathway; and Karen Vousden, chief scientist of Cancer Research UK, and group leader at the Francis Crick Institute. Vousden is known for her work on the p53 tumor suppressor protein.

Cantley and Vousden in particular, have been some of the first to deeply probe the connection between metabolism and cancer treatment.

For example PI3K is a cell-signaling pathway that affects cell metabolism, growth, survival and proliferation, but is often dysregulated in cancer patients. There are drugs that look to target this pathway, however, Cantley’s work suggests that some patients end up with hyperglycemia, which might end up triggering this dysregulated pathway anyway. Instead, he has shown that lowering insulin levels through dietary interventions can help avoid that re-activation, and aid the drug's performance. For example, a mouse study published in "Nature" showed that placing mice on a keto diet (low-carb, high fat) could reduce glycogen stores and prevent spikes that might be hampering the drug’s effectiveness.

So far, the preclinical research has been intermittently promising, but still requires a lot more work (as Mukherjee notes in his own op-ed describing Cantley’s work). But Parikh notes that there’s still a lot of room to improve this research, and approach nutrition based medicine in a more targeted way.

“I think what a lot of people have done is say: keto diet, glioblastoma, let’s go. But there’s a layer deeper than that,” he says. [Note: the keto diet has also been deployed in certain glioblastoma cases].

“If a person has pancreatic cancer, we've figured out that the way that a pancreatic tumor works, you may have higher needs for certain nutrients. In this case, maybe amino acids. And what we do is we create diets that are depleted in those particular amino acids.”

A big part of Faeth’s mission, adds Parikh, is to use this funding to expand and deepen research in this area.

Nutrition and health are clearly linked, and nutrition does have an impact on cancer outcomes. But this is an area of research that can draw some well-deserved skepticism. When it comes to diet and health, it can be easy to fall from scientific fact, into myth territory pretty easily. Critically, this research isn’t touting a “miracle diet” or a “diet-based cure” for cancer. Rather the company is aiming to interrogate how nutrition can become a “fifth pillar” of cancer care through scientific study.

Faith is already gearing up three trials that will look to interrogate the connection emerging from preclinical research. A metastatic pancreatic cancer trial combining a reduced amino acid diet with a gemcitabine and nab-paclitaxel chemotherapy regimen is in development. The company also has another trial aimed at metastatic colorectal cancer. Finally, a trial on insulin-suppressing diets will be posted on clinicaltrials.gov in the coming weeks, per Parikh.

Should the connection prove powerful enough to warrant a treatment, Parikh imagines a version of cancer care where high-quality meals (like the aforementioned Pad Thai) and cancer drugs can work together to achieve better outcomes. A patient would still go through radiotherapy or chemotherapy, but go home and have doctor-prescribed meals delivered to their door (Parikh adds that the meals have been developed by “world-class chefs). Then, the patient would follow up with a nutritionist if concerns arise.

But for now, Parikh says the focus will be almost entirely on bringing this research into the clinical stage.

“They've done as much work as they possibly can pre-clinically and so we've raised this round to move into the clinic. And we're doing early stage trials to confirm safety, obviously, but also see whether there's a signal of efficacy as well,” he says.