Can you imagine what it would be like to control cancer in the same way that chronic diseases such as diabetes are managed and have a higher quality of life despite living with a tumor? That is the dream of Pedro Lichtinger , a Mexican who wants to give patients an opportunity to lead a more fulfilling life.
This entrepreneur is an electromechanical engineer, graduated from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), but four years ago he founded Starton Therapeutics , a biotechnology startup that developed a transdermal implant that gives continuous medicine to cancer patients to increase its effectiveness and reduce its side effects.
“We had a vision of continuously giving the patient a drug, at low levels, drop by drop, to transform that drug into a secondary drug. The reason is very simple. Every three hours, 50% of the amount of medicine that is taken is metabolized and leaves the patient\’s body. That means that you have to take a lot of drugs to stay effective for as long as possible. The high level at the beginning would have side effects and as you go to the second 12 hours of each day, there is no longer enough medicine, \said Pedro in an interview.
For example, Revlimid is the most effective drug for myeloma or bone marrow cancer. Currently patients under a protocol of this drug have to consume orally every 24 hours. However, as the entrepreneur explains, at 2:00 p.m. there is no detectable drug in the body.
How does the Lichtinger technology work? The Starton Therapeutics patch gives continuous microdoses of the Revlimid drug, preventing the drug from losing its effectiveness after 12 hours and generating side effects such as gastrointestinal problems.
In preclinical trials, the Starton Therapeutics patch was successfully tested in mice. As explained by the entrepreneur, a group of animals did not receive the drug with its technology and showed a growth of 29 times in the implanted tumors. On the other hand, another group of rodents received Revlimid orally and showed a 5-fold growth of the tumors. Finally, the mice that followed the Lichtinger implant medical protocol saw their implanted tumors shrink 80-fold. Starton Therapeutics is about to begin human trials to validate its results.
A very personal mission
Pedro Lichtinger is not just any rookie who one day decided to cure cancer. He studied engineering at UNAM and later went on to study for a graduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania at the Wharton School of Business. From there he entered the pharmaceutical industry and his career led him to be President of Europe of Global Primary Care for Pfizer .
“I got to a level where you basically compete to be the CEO. The CEO before the one he is now won and I retired and entered the business formation area. In fact, the current CEO was my right hand man for 8 years. Sure, I continue to have a lot of contact and all my thanks with Pfizer. It is an impressive company in what it has done, continues to do and will do in the future ”, remarked the entrepreneur. Now Pedro is using the knowledge he gained from the pharmacy to try to improve the lives of patients.
But experience is not the only thing that motivates Pedro to make cancer a more bearable disease.
“I have an older brother who has metastasized from prostate cancer and I have lived the last almost eight years by his side seeing the constant struggle he faces to control his disease. Happily he has succeeded. He is alive and I am very happy that he is alive (laughs), but seeing him I realize that there is a huge opportunity to help people and eventually turn cancer treatment into the management of a chronic disease ”.
Lichtinger has a clear vision. 20 years ago, a diagnosis of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) was considered almost a death sentence. Today patients can live with a medical protocol that makes the virus undetectable and they can lead completely normal lives. Pedro and his company want to ensure that a patient can live 10 or 20 years with cancer with a decent quality of life.
Currently, according to figures from the World Health Organization (WHO) , cancer reached 19.3 million people and killed more than 10 ten million people in 2020, the majority in developing countries.
Pedro Lichtinger, founder of Starton Therapeutics / Image: Courtesy Starton Therapeutics
A business with exponential growth
Starton Therapeutics has made a splash in recent months as the great promise among biotech startups. In less than four years of operation, they have raised $ 27 million in funds without resorting to venture capital to \avoid losing control of the company,\ Pedro said.
Today the startup\’s value is more than 250 million dollars and it has participated in funding projects such as the Unicorn Hunters program with Silvina Moschini and Steve Wozniak.
Starton Therapeutics has top-of-the-line medical advisers on its board of scientists including Dr. Kenneth Andersson , director of multiple myeloma at the Dana Farber Institute at Harvard; Dr. Asher Chanan-Khan , Co-Director of Hematology at the Mayo Clinic; and Dr. Mohamad Hussein , Global Multiple Myeloma Leader at Celgene Corporation.
\This year we will start studies in humans to learn data on immune responses to see if there is no return of the cancer,\ Lichtinger said. \We do not cure cancer because cancer has no cure, but with our technology it is repressed in a way that we will not detect it.\
The Lichtinger startup knows that, – unlike other high-profile cases in the world of medical technology such as the infamous Theranos-, biotechnology cannot apply \Fake it \’till you make it\ , that is, pretend that you have a functional product when in reality it is not.
“In the area of biotechnology, there is no way to do things faster than what the Food And Droud Administration (FDA) allows in the United States where we are working. We, like all other startups, are highly regulated by them, which is different in the case of diagnostic equipment. The FDA gave us guidance on how to do the experimentation stage by stage and that is not subject to what a CEO says. It goes well or the company ends ”.
Three Tips for Biotech Entrepreneurs
Finally, Pedro Lichtinger gave some advice for entrepreneurs who want to enter technology startups:
- “The most important thing is to find scientists who validate the vision and give science the green light. Science is very complicated, so for sure, they will never be, but there are many ways to get closer to knowing that you are on the right path ”.
- “You have to surround yourself with a team that can really understand the regulations, the validation steps of a product. 80% of biotechnology companies fail due to errors in the design of the tests (which patients enter, how the product is administered) ”.
- “Having this model, I recommend that you look from the beginning for your vision of how you are going to finance the company. Mexico has a nascent sector of funds that it did not have before and it is necessary to take advantage of it ”.
Lichtinger\’s vision for his company is to bring this product to a global level once they have been able to validate their results with animals in humans and thus, bring medicine to everyone who needs it through strategic alliances with large companies.
\Finding the total cure for cancer is difficult because there are many subtypes, but turning it into a chronic disease is viable,\ he concludes.