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BostonGene Eyes Precision Oncology as it Emerges from Stealth

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CHICAGO (GenomeWeb) – Flush with $50 million from a recent Series A investment from Japanese software giant NEC, biomedical software startup BostonGene plans to commercialize its technology for selecting the best therapies for cancer patients.

According to President and CEO Andrew Feinberg, the company had been working under the radar four years prior to the funding announcement three weeks ago. "With this announcement, we are coming out of this stealth mode and we are going to become much more visible and aggressive as we go to market," he said.

"We're thrilled to have four years of very solid research and validation and collaboration under our belt, and now we're thrilled to have a very credible and global strategic partner backing us, so we're feeling pretty good right now," Feinberg added.

With the investment from NEC, BostonGene will be able to add employees and collaboration partners and accelerate the marketing of its product, he said.

He noted that NEC has a large health-tech business with a wide reach, particularly in Asia. "We are excited to now have access to some of the innovation that exists there," Feinberg said. The partnership will also allow BostonGene to move ahead with plans to expand internationally.

NEC itself has been reaching out internationally in recent months. In September, for example, NEC's European laboratory division entered into a collaboration with Protagen and Germany's National Center for Tumor Diseases to improve prediction of immunotherapy response in patients with malignant melanoma.

Since Lincoln, Massachusetts-based BostonGene was founded in 2015, the company has been building and testing its technology, namely a software platform that helps clinicians find the proper combination of therapies for cancer patients, with a focus on immunotherapies and other targeted treatments. The platform also is available to inform pharmaceutical and biotech companies in the development of new therapies.

BostonGene has an AI-driven, but human-curated global database of cancer research and clinical trials. "At the foundation of all of this is a cloud-native software platform that then ultimately delivers a patient-prioritized list of best treatments that fit this particular patient, based on our analysis of both RNA and DNA sequencing, and ultimately could go on to create personalized vaccines or drug combinations," Feinberg said.

The patented technology combines molecular profiling, assessment of a patient's "immune fitness," and an artificial intelligence engine to comb through a curated, regularly updated database of cancer research and clinical knowledge for assessing oncological treatment options. This database contains biomarkers pointing to gene mutations, protein expression, cell types, and their influence on clinical responses, according to Feinberg.

BostonGene classifies these biomarkers according to the level of evidence from clinical trial results, such as the number of enrolled patients, to preclinical data, such as how often a biomarker is mentioned in relevant published literature.

Feinberg defined "immune fitness" as the ability of an individual's immune system to fight and conquer a disease. "If you think of cancer, then immune fitness would characterize the ability of this individual patient's immune system to recognize and destroy cancerous cells," he said.

The company measures immune fitness by evaluating sequencing data from tumor and normal-tissue cells for the type and activity of immune-system cells. "By equipping oncologists with this knowledge, BostonGene enables rational, scientifically justified, and referenced treatment decisions," Feinberg explained.  

To extract knowledge from next-generation sequencing data and other datasets, BostonGene applies algorithms to calculate metrics including mutation frequency, microsatellite instability, clonality, tumor heterogeneity, and activity of tumor-promoting or -suppressing processes. "In addition, there are algorithms geared to integrating all parameters of individual patient with databases of patients with similar diagnosis and knowledgebases of scientific and clinical information," Feinberg added.

The molecular profiles that the software creates are meant to help clinicians and researchers visualize the strengths and weaknesses of a patient's immune system or a "microenvironment" of cancer cells, according to Feinberg. "Then we can help clinicians understand what the right treatment would be to create the right dynamics or recreate the right dynamics between the immune system and the cancer," he said.

"Truly understanding the microenvironment of the cancerous cells and behavior of the immune system, and then correlating the two to the point where we can understand how to manipulate the immune system to reverse the bad behavior of cancer cells at a very, very high level, that is what we do," Feinberg explained.

The company chose to start with cancer in part because of the prevalence of that disease globally, but also because it is not always treated properly.

Feinberg noted that first-line cancer therapies work between 20 and 80 percent of the time, depending on the type and stage of cancer and numerous other factors. "That means that anywhere between 20 and 80 percent of the cases, we are essentially harming a patient," he said.

"The cause is enormous and of course the opportunity is brilliant."

While BostonGene has not named its customers or announced any partners other than NEC, Feinberg said that the company has been collaborating with many "leading cancer centers" around the world. Data from those organizations as well as from publicly available knowledgebases inform BostonGene's AI and algorithms.

"We have had the privilege of working with … thousands and thousands of datasets that contain anonymized patient information," Feinberg said. "We use those to create the cohorts for each cancer and control groups and we validated those with a great amount of data retrospectively, and we are now working with prospective patients as well."

While Feinberg said that "immunotherapies are our future," he noted that BostonGene does not look at that area in isolation. "We look at all the variety of treatments, including traditional chemo, including radiation, including all of the options that are out there, whether they are approved or in trials," he said. "Usually the right treatment at least today is some sort of a combination."

This strategy is applicable for diseases other than cancer, for example, immune diseases. "We are truly learning the dynamics and the relationship of the immune system with the environment in which it operates," Feinberg said. "Our ability to understand that relationship is critical to potentially help cure or improve chances of curing those diseases," Feinberg said.

He said that medicine is just beginning to truly understand patients. "This is where our ability to truly create the molecular portrait and assess the immune fitness of the patient, [becomes] a critical foundation to moving in the direction of truly treating that particular individual, as opposed to a diagnosis."

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