12 July 2021

Oncode and NKI spinout a new company targeting senescence in oncology, led by Rene Bernards

A new approach could bring benefit to cancer patients

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Over the last 5 years Oncode Investigator Rene Bernards’ laboratory at the NKI has been focused on understanding senescence and its role in tumour biology. This has now culminated in a new company that will take the next step – discover and develop therapeutics that exploit senescence to target tumours. The company is based on breakthrough findings from an accomplished researcher in the field; the good early validation with key pre-clinical experiments supports the idea that this concept could bring benefit to cancer patients. With the launch its also onboarded a well-seasoned management team that promises to execute on ideas to develop them into therapeutics at pace and efficiently. With already identified and validated targets and an initial investment from the Oncode Bridge Fund, the company is now gearing up to raise additional funds to develop them clinically.

In the coming months Oncosence will screen and develop compounds that selectively induce senescence in cancer cells. This is far from trivial, as it requires deep biological understanding of a complex phenomenon such as senescence, bespoke assays and screening tools needed to develop first in class drugs against such targets. The scientific mind behind the company is Oncode Investigator Rene Bernards and he has teamed up with Rolf Jan Rutten, a serial entrepreneur also CEO of the newco.

“What makes Oncosence unique is that we are trying a completely new approach to the treatment of cancer and that relates to the induction of senescence for cancer therapy. Until now this has never been done” says Rene Bernards.

Senescence is a stress response of cells, in normal cells and cancer cells alike. That leads to an arrest in proliferation and many other changes in cell physiology that many believe can be exploited for efficient cancer treatment.

“We believe that we can then treat cancer with what we call the one-two punch approach. We showed the first proof of principle in 2019 when we published a paper on this in Nature: that you can first induce senescence then the second drug to kill the senescence cancer cells” says Bernards.

“The reason why this is attractive is that you can use, in theory, therapies sequentially rather than simultaneously and that gives physicians the freedom to combine far more drugs than they currently can combine. Many drugs cannot be combined because of issues of combination toxicity. What we have therefore developed is this sequential treatment strategy where there is synergy between the two drugs without having to give them at the same time” he adds.

While the Oncode Bridge Fund believes that no proposition is too risky or too early for an investment discussion, in the case of Oncosence, the newness and lack of precedent in Bernards’ approach may also mean additional convincing is required during investor discussions. "Most European investors like to ‘derisk’ investment opportunities, meanwhile their American counterparts are focused on maximizing the potential impact of breakthroughs in the lab. I hope we will soon have more European investors with this mindset, it would be great for the life sciences ecosystem in Europe" says Bernards.

"We are ready to do this clinically, we know how to do it; we know which drugs to combine. Our short-term focus is to gather a syndicate of investors that are also willing to take the risk with us. I am motivated to make this work and I will make this work. Going against the tide - it just puts your perseverance and dedication to make it work to the test" he concludes.

For more information on the Oncode Oncology Bridge Fund please click here.

Shobhit Dhawan

Shobhit Dhawan

Fund Manager

Shobhit is the Fund Manager of Oncode Oncology Bridge Fund. Prior to joining Oncode Bridge Fund, he was an early stage investor at UvA/AMC Ventures for 4 years, where he made investments in tech and life science spin offs from the two institutions. Before UvA ventures, Shobhit supported early stage ventures with fundraising and business strategy at ACE incubator in Amsterdam. He trained as a pharmacologist at the University of Oxford and started his drug discovery career at Pfizer UK. Shobhit holds a PhD in immunology from the University of Amsterdam.


Fund Manager

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