Riptide Therapeutics Awarded $175,000 From George Shultz Innovation Fund

TERT expression helps maintain the telomere caps at the ends of chromosomes. As cells differentiate, TERT is repressed and telomeres will then begin to shorten with each cell division. When cancer cells reactivate TERT, the telomere caps remain protected as cells divide, making them immortal. (iStock Photo)

The George Shultz Innovation Fund (GSIF), managed by the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, recently selected Riptide Therapeutics, a biopharmaceutical startup led by University of Chicago and Northwestern University researchers, as a Fall 2022 cohort award winner.

The company, launched in November 2021, aims to develop a therapeutic platform that helps make the body more responsive to cancer treatments. Grant Frost leads the startup and acts as its chief scientist. The team includes Steve Kron, professor of molecular genetics and cell biology at UChicago, and Karl Scheidt, professor of chemistry and pharmacology at Northwestern University.

“We are elated that the GSIF committee sees the potential in our therapeutic approach,” said Frost. “This award provides Riptide with traction that should catalyze further investment towards our immediate drug development and future patient impact goals.”

Riptide’s technology builds off a 2009 Nobel Prize-winning discovery that identified the enzyme telomerase, a crucial component of cancer biology. Telomerase, which isn’t expressed in healthy cells, allows cancer cells to replicate indefinitely, making them in essence immortal. Scientists heralded this discovery as a route for curing cancer. If they could find a way to target the enzyme and turn this mechanism off, the disease would stop progressing and existing cancer cells would simply die off.

Achieving this aim in clinic, though, has proven difficult – long-term inhibition of telomerase was shown to be toxic and wasn’t effective in more advanced cancers. Knowing this, the team at Riptide has taken a different approach towards realizing the potential of telomerase as a cancer drug target. Their focus dials in on telomerase’s role in cancer’s resistance to therapy.

First, the chemistry team at Northwestern designed a potent synthetic molecule called RTTX401, that is based off a naturally occurring telomerase inhibitor that uses a distinct mechanism of action compared to past drug development efforts. Next, the cancer biology team at UChicago used the new inhibitor not as a treatment on its own, but to sensitize tumors to existing therapies such as radiation and chemotherapy. With this approach, the team not only saw significant improvement to radiation response in mice models, but also the activation of the immune system against the tumors.

“Our inhibitors plus radiation effectively destroyed the tumors,” said Scheidt. “We think this development of turning telomerase into an immuno-oncology target could have wide-ranging impact in cancer treatment.”

The company, which has participated in numerous Polsky Center programs including I-Corps and Compass, is looking to partner with investors to begin preclinical development of its telomerase inhibitor, and then eventually move to testing in clinical trials.

“While we are hopeful that treating cancer patients with telomerase inhibitors to sensitize their tumors to radiation will be found safe and then shown to be effective, there will still be much more to do,” said Kron. “However, it may not be long before physicians can offer this as an alternative to patients unlikely to benefit from current immunotherapy.”

Riptide Therapeutics joins Alnair Therapeutics as the Fall 2022 GSIF cohort winners. Both will receive a $175,000 investment from the Fund.

During the GSIF process, teams received guidance and dedicated support from the Polsky Center, business experts, an advisory committee, and student Innovation Fund Associates who are training in venture capitalism.

“The GSIF is a venture-philanthropy fund, managed as an evergreen impact fund,” said Ozge Guney Altay, director of Investment Strategy for Polsky Deep Tech Ventures. “Our mission and our challenge are one and the same: identify investment opportunities that not only generate significant financial returns, but also create lasting impact for humankind. We believe in all the companies that engage with us and are proud to have the opportunity to support them on their journeys.”

To date, the Fund has invested $9 million in 94 companies that have gone on to raise $412 million in follow-on funding. Companies launched with the fund’s support include Onchilles Pharma, ExplORer Surgical, ClostraBio, Esya Labs, and

Article by Devon McPhee, freelance writer and editor and owner of DM Editorial Services, LLC. Devon has more than 20 years of experience covering business, science and technology, health and medicine, and higher education.

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