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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

TAE Life Sciences Testing Neutrons to Treat Cancer

­Scientists at Irvine-based TAE Life Sciences believe they may be on the cusp of next-generation treatments for cancers.

“It’s a method of delivering radiation to tumor cells with far more precision and safety than traditional radiation therapy,” Chief Executive Bruce Bauer told the Business Journal.

“We can target the radiation at the cellular level. Radiation is typically measured in millimeters. We measure our precision in microns.”

TAE Life Sciences is in the market to raise $75 million to $100 million. It’s already raised almost $90 million, with its last funding round in 2022 valuing the company at $300 million.

It’s participating in an ongoing trial in China that’s shown promise. It plans to start another trial in Italy early next year and in the U.S. in a couple of years. It recently moved into a 24,000-square-foot facility on the corner of Bake Boulevard and Irvine Boulevard in Irvine.

If all goes to plan, its technology may be available at hospitals in five years.

“This is an amazing company,” UCI Health CEO Chad Lefteris told the Business Journal. “We have folks partnering with them. It’s got extreme promise.”

Nuclear Fusion

Bauer in 2016 joined Foothill Ranch-based nuclear fusion company TAE Technologies, which is trying to develop a nearly unlimited source of clean energy. Last year, TAE Technologies said it had exceeded its fusion reactor performance goals and had closed a
$250 million financing round from investors Google, Chevron and Sumitomo Corp., among others, bringing its total raised to date to $1.2 billion in private capital.

In 2017, Bauer organized the spinout of TAE Life Sciences from TAE Technologies.
TAE Technologies earlier this year spun off another business arm, TAE Power Solutions, which aims to enable faster battery-charging for electric vehicles.

“Like many research-intensive programs, TAE Technologies has developed technology that has applications in other sectors,” Bauer said.

Bauer said he was hired because of longtime background in healthcare venture capital, including founding Menlo Park-based Newbury Ventures, a private equity firm.

Bauer, who has a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from Duke University, made early investments in companies like Ventritex, one of the first surgically implanted defibrillators to manage fast heart beats, and Resound, maker of one of the world’s first programable hearing aids.

Boron Neutron Capture

The technology known as boron neutron capture therapy (BNCT) was conceptualized in the 1930s with early clinical trials starting at nuclear reactors in the 1950s.

“Historically, the only source of these neutrons had to come from the core of a nuclear reactor,” Bauer said.

The problem was the size of the nuclear power plant made it impractical for widespread use on cancer patients.

“Over the years, a couple thousand patients were treated with encouraging results,” Bauer said. “It was never going anywhere clinically until you could define a practical way to make neutrons available in a hospital and not in a research reactor.”

A decade ago, Sumitomo unveiled the first accelerator-based system. Japan approved this AB-BNCT for recurrent and advanced head and neck cancers in late 2020.

Complex Tech

When Bauer spun out TAE Life Sciences, he decided to keep the company in Orange County because the new company came with 35 engineers and scientists who understood the complicated technology.

“If I had to go out and recruit a team like that from scratch, it’d be five years in the making,” Bauer said. “Here on Day 1, I had them.

“It’s one of the most complex technologies that I’ve ever seen. I’m lucky we know how to make it work. It’s a broad set of skills that a company needs to bring together.  We’ve managed to do that.”

TAE Life Sciences, which has 100 employees, including 50 in Orange County, has developed a machine much smaller than a reactor.

“We can take technology and downsize it in power and apply it to a particular type of cancer therapy,” Bauer said. “We can make neutrons available in a hospital.”

Alphabeam System

The company built a “Alphabeam Neutron System” that includes a compact accelerator-based neutron source, boron drugs and software and hardware components. A typical BNCT utilizes a drug called Boronophenylalanine (BPA) to deliver non-toxic boron-10 compound that selectively accumulates in tumor tissue and not in healthy tissue.

Bauer wasn’t satisfied with the boron drugs initially available, so the company decided to develop its own medication from scratch. The drugs are currently in preclinical development, using advances in nanotechnology for a new class of targeted boron drugs.

In TAE Life’s system, once the boron drugs have been infused into the patient, the patient is then irradiated with the Alphabeam neutron beam. The boron captures the neutrons causing a reaction that generates alpha and lithium particles that break the DNA strands and kill the cancer cells from the inside.

“It’s a combination of the two that kills the cell,” Bauer said. “It’s three times more effective at killing cancer cells than the healthy cells. This model is like treating cancer with laser-like precision versus a flamethrower.”

The initial focus is on solid tumors in the head and neck as well as some melanomas.

China Trial

In February, TAE Life Sciences announced its first neutron beam system at China’s Xiamen Humanity Hospital treated 12 patients in its Investigator Initiated Trial.

“The treatments lasted less than one hour, and interim results are encouraging with evidence of tumor control,” the company said. “Early demonstration is seen of superior tumor control and signs of tumor shrinkage.”

TAE Life Sciences has won the backing of Hans Keirstead, an internationally known stem cell expert from OC who last year won a Business Journal Innovator of the Year Award.

Keirstead’s Aivita Biomedical Inc., an Irvine-based biotech company specializing in stem cell applications, in January reached an agreement to provide its technology to help TAE Life Sciences target cancer cells.

“TAE has an incredible bullet. What they need is a targeting mechanism,” Keirstead told the Business Journal. “It’s a pretty cool technology. If anyone can win the race against cancer, I’m cheering them on.”

Ink and Toner Strategy

If approved after clinical trials, the company’s strategy is to sell the machines and drugs in a method like how printer companies offload their printers at low prices and profit off the ink.

Bauer estimated there are 500 to 600 centers worldwide that may buy the system.

A big advantage will be delivering therapy in a single treatment where patients won’t need radiation for months and hence a cancer center could treat thousands of patients annually rather than hundreds, he said.

The company has signed agreements to install the equipment in the U.S., although he said he’s not allowed to disclose where they will be placed.

“We believe we have a very compelling mission,” Bauer said. “We have a very strong unmet need. We have a wonderful solution that we believe we have de-risked.”

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