Meet Kurt Rote, founder of Western Oncolytics
, a developer of novel cancer therapies founded in 2013. The company’s WO-12, a novel immuno-oncolytic therapy, is expected to extend the lives of, or outright cure, patients across a wide range of cancer types while avoiding the severe side effects common with current cancer therapies. Western Oncolytics aims to use the most sophisticated science to give life and hope to cancer patients.
How does your immuno-oncolytic therapy work to extend the lives of cancer patients?
Western Oncolytics’ WO-12 is an immuno-oncolytic virus: a virus engineered to replicate only in cancer cells, destroying them while propagating at the site of the cancer. And when the immune system responds to the virus, it is drawn to the tumor and starts to recognize infected cancer cells as disease as well. Furthermore, the virus can travel throughout the body, finding tumors that might not have even been identified.
Perhaps most importantly, the virus also expresses genes that we added to it. The particular genes we added communicate with the parts of the immune system best at fighting cancer and signal them to come to the tumor. Other genes alter the infected cancer cells and the tumor environment to make them more amenable to immune cells.
The combination of these genes, and the inherent stimulation of the immune system, builds a complementary immune system action against cancer: immunotherapy. And like the virus itself, once the immune system is trained to identify and remove cancer cells, it can be effective throughout the entire body.
What are the side effects to WO-12?
This therapy’s side effects, a few days of flu-like symptoms, should be far more tolerable than modern, harsh chemotherapy. This also means it should work in combination with other treatments, and we have evidence that the efficacy, when combined with other treatments, is even greater than the benefit of either added together. Also, it should work in nearly any solid tumor cancer, rather than just a fraction of tumors that have a certain gene or marker.
The result, we expect, is a therapy that can address a majority of cancer patients, with relatively small side effects, working synergistically with other treatments, and shrink or outright remove cancer throughout the body.
What types of cancers do you find it most effective with?
The WO-12 is designed to work in any solid tumor, or about 85 percent of all cancer patients. Of course, it will work better for some types of cancers than others, so it would likely only be used for a particular group.
Current data suggest it will work best in kidney cancer, so we will initially start there, but we also believe it could work in breast, ovarian, prostate, colorectal, melanoma, liver, head and neck, pancreatic and bladder cancers. As we gather clinical data, we’ll better understand exactly who will benefit.
What advice would you give to entrepreneurs in starting their businesses?
The moments when it just seems impossible are the most important. That’s when others give up, and when finding a way to keep going makes your company special.
Also, if you want people to buy or invest in something, it’s a lot easier if you have something they want. This seems obvious, but make sure you really have a product that both works and is needed.
How did you come to be an entrepreneur?
I didn’t really set out to be an entrepreneur. I was lucky to grow up with enough support and talent to believe I could do almost anything. So I really set out to just find what I should be doing. It took me my first 29 years to discover that I should start a business. Some experiences during that time had more of an impression on me than others.
While studying and working in labs in college, I saw the potential of biomedical and genetic engineering – we now have the ability to design life, and this will have more impact on humanity than anything we’ve done before.
Working summers as a golf caddy, I learned that business, more than other professions, suited me. Walking along with the doctors and lawyers and salesman as they golfed, I connected best with the people who had started companies or worked with large organizations. Later, during jobs and business school projects with a range of companies, I saw that my personality really fit startups well. I’m motivated by challenges – when someone says “This can’t be done,” I get really interested.
Finally, just a couple years ago, I had just returned to the US from two years in Switzerland working and studying, and decided to start a company. I had little savings, no product, no investment, no partners -- basically nothing. I did have an idea though – a way to make a virus act and deliver genes to only diseased cells, essentially a way to genetically redesign our bodies right the spot of the disease.
Eventually I learned about oncolytics – this exact idea for cancer cells. I rededicated myself to this field, found a great therapy, negotiated a temporary license for it, built a team around it, and we completed a $275,000 seed funding round just three weeks ago. There’s been sacrifices made in every aspect of my life to get here, and I have no regrets.