For Buffalo-based start-up, fighting cancer is personal

Oct 24, 2017

A Buffalo-based startup is showing strong progress in developing a new and effective cancer treatment. Now it’s time for them to take the leap into human testing.

Kate Rittenhouse-Olson has been researching cancer since she attended graduate school in 1984. In 2012 she founded the start-up For-Robin on the University at Buffalo's South Campus and, since then, she and her team have taken on the task of fighting cancer. Five years later, Rittenhouse-Olson retired from her job as a Professor of Biotechnical and Clinical Laboratory Sciences at the University to focus solely on the company, which is standing on the precipice of its next big step.

For-Robin has developed what’s known as a monoclonal antibody – a treatment that specifically targets human cancer cells.

As Rittenhouse-Olson explained, a lot of changes take place when cells turn cancerous, and it can be difficult to identify the difference between the bad cells and the good ones.

“Some of the changes are that they replicate faster and so that’s why a lot of chemotherapeutic drugs are targeted at replication,” said Rittenhouse-Olson. “Another change though is that they’ve become more like embryonic tissue. So some of the markers on their surfaces aren’t the same as mature human cells.”

Mouse cancer cells under a microscope. The bright whitish dots show where For-Robin's humanized antibody has penetrated the cells. The antibody is also capable of penetrating and killing human tumor cells.
Credit Loukia Karacosta / For-Robin Inc.

Among those markers is the Thomsen-Friedenreich antigen, found on about 80 percent of all cancer cells, but not on normal cells. For-Robin’s antibody targets Thomsen-Friedenreich’s carbohydrate structures as its antigen and flags them as being bad.

To test the treatment on human cells without using actual humans, the For-Robin team implanted cancer cells in mice with weakened or no immune systems.

“You can put the human tumor in them and it grows and gets blood vessels just like it had in a human patient. So then, when you go about treating it, it’s much more like treating it in a patient,” said Rittenhouse-Olsen.

They tested with human triple-negative breast cancer – an aggressive form often found in young women – and also with small-cell lung cancer. In both cases, there were promising results. The antibody was able to decrease tumor size without affecting normal tissue. It also helped carry chemo treatments directly to the tumors, and prevented them from binding to blood vessels.

Triple-negative breast cancer, in particular, is important to tackle because it can’t be treated with usual hormones. Rittenhouse-Olsen said, “It doesn’t have a target drawn on it that we can use to target it and not hurt the normal tissue of the patient.”

It’s also important to Rittenhouse-Olsen because it’s the same cancer her sister Robin died of in 1986 at the young age of 31.

“When you lose somebody you love, you realize how many people it affects,” said Rittenhouse-Olsen. “And she was an inspiration to me in so many ways. She was a counselor for troubled youth, and at her funeral I think there were 200 kids that were there, that came to thank me for the impact she had made on them.”

That left Rittenhouse-Olson thinking – if her sister had done that much in just 31 years, what could she have done with another 31? It’s that thought that inspired her to start For-Robin, and keeps them motivated in their work.

For-Robin President and Founder Kate Rittenhouse-Olson (right) with company senior scientist John Fisk.
Credit Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo

“We want to give each person the time to fulfill their promise, I think. So if we could help the young women with this triple-negative form fight their cancer, add one more thing to help them fight their cancer, it would be great,” said Rittenhouse-Olsen.

Carbohydrate-focused antibodies are somewhat of a niche in the cancer-research community, but For-Robin isn’t the only team in the field working on them. Some similar projects are already in clinical trials. Others are still in development. And For-Robin is ready to take their next major step.

“So it’s really kind of different from the research,” said Rittenhouse-Olsen. “Now we’re going to into production and really getting ready for the clinical trials. It seems like almost picking up a new book and doing something different.”

The team also needs to look at the business side of drug-making. They’re in talks with two of the 15 largest pharmaceutical companies in the world – considering whether or not to add For-Robin’s antibody to their portfolio. But because there’s stiff competition, Rittenhouse-Olson is attending a networking conference in California with executives from others in the pharmaceutical industry.

“We’re trying to get more and more people to look at us to increase the chances of somebody willing to support us all the way to the clinic,” said Rittenhouse-Olsen.

And while she is excited about the prospects for what’s next, Rittenhouse-Olson recognizes that there’s still plenty of work and learning to be done.

“I want to do my best because I really want to see if we can help people.”

For-Robin President and Founder Kate Rittenhouse-Olson, second from right, with For-Robin team members. From left to right: Diala Ghazal, Fatma Zalzala, John Fisk, Sally Quataert, Susan Morey and James Olson.
Credit Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo