Test and Treat
Companion Biosciences hopes to treat cancer before it can even be detected.
Jaime Modiano remembers the moment over two decades ago when he decided he might be able to develop a test that could detect cancer. The U of M veterinary clinical sciences professor was in the shower, thinking about canine hemangiosarcoma, a cancer that occurs in dogs’ blood vessels.
“If you can imagine that the blood vessel is a hose, the inside lining of the hose is where the tumor grows,” he explains. “And so, in that analogy, I thought ‘These cells are on the inner edge of the hose, and there’s water coming through [in the form of] blood. So it’s impossible for some of these cells not to fall into the stream. They’re hanging on by a thread and some of them are just going to go, ‘Ah!’... They’re going to swim.”
What would happen, he wondered, if there was a test sensitive enough to go into blood and dig for those cancer cells? He set to work developing one, only to realize that there wasn’t an application for it that made sense at the time. “Telling a family with a four-year-old Golden Retriever that their dog is going to develop life-threatening cancer and there is nothing they can do about it is not good medicine,” he says. He shelved the test.
When Modiano arrived at the U of M in 2008 from the University of Colorado Denver, a vet med student named Jill Schappa (D.V.M. ’12) was working in his lab at the Masonic Cancer Center. There she introduced herself to Daniel Vallera, a professor of molecular therapeutics at the Medical School. As they talked, Vallera mentioned that he had an anti-cancer drug in the freezer that he'd designed to treat certain kinds of brain, head, and neck cancers. (The drug was awaiting study results to determine next steps.) Intrigued, Schappa brought it back to the Modiano Lab.
That compound became the foundation for something now tentatively named CB-101, a new drug that not only attacks cancer cells, but destroys their home by modifying their cellular environment.
“The idea was that if we had a test that could detect cancer early and we could come in with a safe drug that could actually burn down the house, we might have something,” says Modiano. “We might have the intervention that we were lacking for the test.”
Today, that 'test, predict, and treat' is the basis of Companion Biosciences, a therapeutics company focused on age-related diseases founded by Modiano and Eric Lindquist (B.S. ’96). They met in 2017 when Lindquist was selling a liquid biopsy test for another company. While working at the U of M Medical School in the 1970s, Lindquist’s mother, Leanna, had helped discover a marker known as the Philadelphia chromosome in acute lymphatic leukemia patients. It turned out that Modiano, with his colleague, Matthew Breen, had discovered the same chromosome in dogs.
The hope behind Companion Biosciences is that the research might also be adapted from dogs to treat humans for cancer and other age-related diseases. “Dogs are not only our companions, but can also serve as sentinels and surrogates for human studies,” explains Lindquist.
In 2022, Companion Bioscience became the U of M’s 200th startup. Lindquist handles business management, operations, and strategy. While it’s in the very early stages, Modiano and Lindquist are working to bring its drug into vet clinics, as well as develop early detection diagnostics which use at least three different AI algorithms.
“The real pivot is not only that we’re moving this to humans, but that we’re moving this to humans with a concept of, ‘We want to maintain an overall healthy state as we age and live for many years beyond the age of what nature intended,’” says Modiano.