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Cancer scientist launches drug-development company

Kate Rittenhouse-Olson and Kimiko Ferguson

Kate Rittenhouse-Olson (left) founded For-Robin Inc. to develop a promising drug: an antibody that prevents tumors from spreading. She is pictured here with student Kimiko Ferguson. Photo: Douglas Levere

By CHARLOTTE HSU

Published October 17, 2013

The name of Kate Rittenhouse-Olson’s cancer therapeutics company is For-Robin Inc.

It’s an appellation that honors the memory of her sister, a bright young woman who loved flowers, planted tulips and hyacinths in her yard, baked a mean chocolate silk pie, hosted dinner parties with brown-sugar-dipped scallops wrapped in bacon, and gave the teenagers she worked with as a counselor in Pittsford, N.Y., the dose of tough love they needed to get through the hardest problems in life.

Robin died of breast cancer in 1986 at the age of 31. At her funeral and after, young people told stories about how Robin’s guidance kept them alive—away from drugs, out of trouble and hopeful for the future.

Rittenhouse-Olson, now a UB biotechnology professor, was a postdoctoral researcher at the time of Robin’s passing. She resolved to learn as much as she could about cancer, with the goal of fighting it one day.

Twenty-six years later, Rittenhouse-Olson is founding president of For-Robin Inc., a company developing a promising drug: an antibody that stops breast cancer tumors from metastasizing to other parts of the body.

Lung and breast tumors

Lungs and primary breast tumors from mice with untreated cancer (left), and cancer treated with For-Robin’s JAA-F11 antibody (right). The lungs from the control animal are full of tumor nodules that have spread from the breast tumor, while the lungs from the treated mice were tumor-free, demonstrating that the antibody inhibits the spread of tumors. Image: Jun Yan, Jamie Heimburg-Molinaro, Susan Morey and Kate Rittenhouse-Olson

The For-Robin antibody is called JAA-F11. Produced by mice, it binds to a part of a cancer cell called the Thomsen-Friedenreich antigen (TF), a molecular structure that helps cancer cells cling to and travel through blood vessels.

By blocking TF, researchers in Rittenhouse-Olson’s UB lab prevented breast cancer from spreading in mice and in petri dish experiments with human cells. Tests are underway to determine if the antibody also can be used to deliver cancer-fighting drugs to breast cancer cells, Rittenhouse-Olson says.

“The antibody reacts with 80 percent of human breast cancer cell lines tested, including ones called ‘triple-negative,’ which don’t respond to common types of targeted drugs,” she says.

“Robin died 26 years ago at a young age, and triple-negative cancer is more prevalent in young women like that,” she adds. “For this population, the only thing that really works is hard-core chemotherapy. Our antibody may be able to give these patients a new option.”

For-Robin, established in 2012, has received an infusion of startup funds in recent months, including:

  • $282,224 from the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program of the National Cancer Institute
  • $50,000 from the Bruce Holm Memorial Catalyst Fund at UB, which supports commercialization of UB inventions.
  • $30,373 from the UB Center for Advanced Biomedical and Bioengineering Technology (UB CAT), which supports research and development projects that pair local life sciences firms with UB scientists. The UB CAT is funded by NYSTAR, Empire State Development’s Division of Science, Technology and Innovation.

The STTR is the National Cancer Institute’s engine for commercializing technologies to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer. The program’s support of For-Robin helped Rittenhouse-Olson secure the UB CAT award, which requires entrepreneurs to come up with matching funds, and the Holm award, which gives heightened consideration to applicants with additional funding sources.

On the scientific front, For-Robin’s next step is to ready the antibody for human clinical trials by replacing some mouse parts with human parts. The alterations, which are underway, will decrease the chance of patients’ immune systems rejecting the antibody.

Rittenhouse-Olson also is interested in exploring JAA-F11’s utility as a cancer imaging agent and tumor killer. The antibody is only expected to bind with cancer cells, which means doctors could use it to locate tumors or to deliver cancer-fighting compounds straight to cancer cells. In addition, the alterations that researchers are making to the antibody may make it possible for the antibody to directly kill tumor cells.

JAA-F11 may be effective in several types of cancer, Rittenhouse-Olson says. “We showed that it blocked breast cancer from going to the lungs in mice, and other researchers have shown the same effect in prostate and colon cancer cells.”

On the startup front, For-Robin has joined UB’s Entrepreneur-In-Residence (EIR) program, which pairs university spinoffs with experienced entrepreneurs who can provide guidance on business matters. The program, run by UB’s Office of Science, Technology Transfer and Economic Outreach (STOR), is funded by the federal Economic Development Administration and a grant from SUNY’s EIR program.

For-Robin’s EIR is Bob Redd, a Western New York Venture Association board member. Under his guidance, UB law, MBA and pharmacy students working for STOR are assisting For-Robin with projects that include developing a business plan and assessing the potential market for JAA-F11.