Health & Tech is a regular feature highlighting life sciences and high-tech companies throughout the region.
Address: Sherman Hall, University at Buffalo South Campus
Year founded: 2012
Founder: Kate Rittenhouse-Olson
Industry: Drug company
Description: For-Robin has a patented antibody, named JAA-F11, that attaches itself to cancer cells to kill them and block their spread to other parts of the body.
Number of employees: Six full- and part-time employees
Financing raised: $2.5 million
Lowdown: Rittenhouse-Olson was a graduate student at UB when her sister, Robin, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Robin’s death, at age 31, continues to inspire Rittenhouse-Olson, who already was preparing for a career in cancer research.
The company is based in a lab on the UB South Campus, where Rittenhouse-Olson is a professor of biotechnical and clinical laboratory sciences.
She has rebuffed opportunities to move to fancier incubator space on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, saying her Sherman Hall lab more than meets her needs and is convenient to her classroom and to animal labs on the South Campus.
For-Robin’s antibody therapy fights cancer two ways. In the first, after the antibody binds itself to a sugar located on the surface of the cancer cell, the antibody delivers a dose of chemicals that stops and kills the cell while leaving surrounding, healthy cells unharmed.
In the second, the antibody kills the cancer cells by using the patient’s own white blood cells. After the antibody binds to the cancer cell in the same way, it allows the white blood cells to bind to the antibody and then to kill the tumor.
The treatment has shown promise in mice. The company must finish animal therapy studies and then begin producing enough of the antibody for the safety testing required by federal regulators.
After that, clinical trials in human patients could begin. The drug would be delivered to patients through an infusion or an injection.
The latter stages of testing are expensive, and require the assistance of deep-pocketed partners.
Rittenhouse-Olson is talking to a dozen pharmaceutical companies about a partnership or licensing For-Robin’s technology. She’s also met with venture groups about investment in the company.
For-Robin has raised about $2.5 million since its founding four years ago, primarily through federal grants and some through the university. The company also was accepted into the Start-Up NY tax-free zone program.
“We’re at the point where we could use some funding for the next step,” she said.
Rittenhouse-Olson also has received high-profile slots at national biotech and research conferences, giving her a chance to network and forge relationships.
Building a startup company, particularly one involved in drug development, takes time.
She said she wants to keep the company in Buffalo, if she can. She points to the presence of Roswell Park Cancer Institute, and the successful example of the biotech firm Athenex.
“They asked me recently, ‘So have they turned you into a businesswoman?’ I still feel like I’m still a scientist with a dream of getting my drug to the market, more than anything else,” Rittenhouse-Olson said.