Paw-dern medicine

Houston-based veterinary biotech startup modernizes cancer treatments for dogs

Dr. Colleen O'Connor has adapted immunotherapy treatments to be used in dogs. Courtesy of CAVU Biotherapies

More than three years after its founding, Houston-based veterinary biotech company CAVU Biotherapies recently accomplished a significant milestone. In October, CAVU's specialized immunotherapy was administered to its first cancer patient: a black Labrador in Pennsylvania diagnosed with B-cell lymphoma.

Dr. Colleen O'Connor, CEO and founder of CAVU Biotherapies, established the company in July 2015 with a goal to help pets live longer post-cancer diagnoses. O'Connor, who earned a PhD in toxicology with a specialty in immunology, has more than a decade of hands-on experience researching cancer treatments.

"Our goal is to scale up and be able to increase our dogs' qualities of life with us," O'Connor said. "We want to keep families intact longer and we want to be able to modernize cancer care for our animals."

At CAVU, O'Connor dedicates her time to modernizing cancer care for dogs by developing an Autologous Prescription Product, otherwise known as adoptive T-cell therapy for dogs. The T-cell therapy is currently offered as a companion treatment to other canine cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiation or surgery, O'Connor said.

Historically, cancer research for animals has lagged behind that of humans, and cancer diagnoses have come late due to the language barrier, O'Connor said. Of the dogs who enter remission, a majority of them relapse within 10 months to one year, she said.

"A majority [of dogs] are diagnosed at stage four, and you have to become very aggressive," O'Connor said. "For B-cell lymphoma, with the current treatments right now and the current standard of [therapies], less than 20 percent make it to two years post-diagnosis."

Launching CAVU
O'Connor first began studying T-cell therapy for humans with cancer during her post-doctoral fellowship at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Her fellowship also partnered with Texas A&M University's Small Animal Hospital to develop a clinical trial studying the effects of adoptive T-cell therapies on dogs with B-cell lymphoma.

T-cell therapy is a cellular-based treatment in which a type of white blood cells — or the cells that fight off tumors and infections — are harvested from blood samples drawn from patients. The cells are then injected back into the patient through an IV to fight the cancerous cells, O'Connor said.

Unexpectedly, O'Connor's 19-year-old dog, Bubbles, was diagnosed with transitional cell carcinoma in 2008 and later dying from it in December 2009. Five years later, O'Connor's sister's 6-year-old dog, Daisy, also died from transitional cell carcinoma. O'Connor said she remembers feeling helpless as she watched the dogs succumb to the disease.

"I was giving them drugs and protocols that were from 1980 … and I was really upset that there wasn't much more we could do for our dogs — especially because I treat my dogs like family," O'Connor said.

That was when O'Connor realized she wanted to help prevent other people from feeling the pain of losing their furry family members. While T-cell therapy is not a new method of treating cancer in humans, O'Connor focused on modifying the serum to create a treatment plan appropriate for dogs.

However, launching a company focusing specifically on treating cancer in animals was not without its challenges; O'Connor said she had to learn how to start a business, make industry connections, and adopt an entrepreneurial mindset.

To help with this, CAVU also connected with various entrepreneurial accelerators, such as Houston Technology Center and Station Houston, which are associations that help place young businesses in front of investors.

CAVU later became a member of the Houston Angel Network — a group of private investors of high net worth individuals that as a group invest in startups. By presenting her business to HAN and its investors, CAVU was able to gain financial backing.

CAVU also recently joined the Capital Factory in early 2018, an Austin-based accelerator program for entrepreneurs in Texas. O'Connor said the program has helped her meet investors, mentors and other startups.

"The way I overcame a lot of this [the early challenges] is by education, listening and trying to navigate and talk with as many of the right people as I could that had experience," she said.

The future of CAVU
Since CAVU treated its first patient in October, CAVU's adoptive T-cell therapy treatment has been administered to six dogs, O'Connor said. CAVU's T-cell therapy is currently available at more than 12 veterinary clinics across the country, including clinics in Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, New York, North Carolina, and Missouri.

Additionally, four Houston-area clinics currently offer the T-cell therapy treatment: Garden Oaks Veterinary Clinic, Bayou City Veterinary Hospital, Memorial-610 Hospital for Animals, and Sugar Land Veterinary Specialists.

In order for a dog to be considered as a candidate — though it is ultimately up to the veterinarian on whether the T-cell therapy is right for specific dogs — the dogs must weigh more than 8 pounds, not be allergic to mouse or cow products and have no active autoimmune diseases.

The company also launched a new clinical trial with A&M University in October, looking at the effects of CAVU's T-cell therapy coupled with reduced chemotherapy periods for dogs, from roughly 19 to 26 weeks of chemotherapy to 6 to 8 weeks.

While CAVU's therapy is currently only available for dogs, O'Connor said her team plans to modify the T-cell therapy to be administered in other animals.

"We have a lot of cat owners ask us [about treatment] and we are going to do that for the next round in funding," she said. "We're going to look at how to translate this for cats and eventually horses."

O'Connor said that CAVU will launch more clinical trials with A&M University's Small Animal Hospital in the future, with CAVU aiming to make T-cell therapy treatments for cats and horses available in 2020.

Looking back, O'Connor said she has come a long way in her career path: from working with sea animals at the Newport Aquarium in Kentucky to studying human immunology and toxicology, but she's returned to studying animals.

"It's amazing how I pivoted, but at the end of the day I kind of came back to animals … and I came back full circle in a way I could have never expected," she said.

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Here's what interactive, virtual events to log on to this month. Getty Images

Despite much of the state returning to some state of normalcy, larger groups are still not encouraged to gather quite yet in order to avoid an uptick in COVID-19 cases.

With that in mind, here are over 10 Houston innovation events you can attend virtually via online meetings. Be sure to register in advance, as most will send an access link ahead of the events.

June 2 — How Fashion Brands Optimize E-Commerce and Sustainability During a Pandemic

Kim Roxie, founder of LAMIK Beauty, moderates a panel of e-commerce startup founders for The Ion to discuss modern issues the female founders are facing.

Details: The event is at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, June 2. Learn more.

June 4 — Startup Growth After COVID-19 with Sputnik ATX

Curious about what business and startup growth may look like post-COVID-19? Join Sputnik ATX Partner Joe Merrill via General Assembly for a discussion on how to grow a business and raise a round during a pandemic.

Details: The event is at 3 p.m. on Thursday, June 4. Learn more.

June 6 — Enventure Basecamp: Business Building Workshop

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Details: The event is at 9 a.m. on Saturday, June 6. Learn more.

June 9 — Pulse Check-Today's Funding Landscape

Today's current crisis has changed the mindset of many industry strategic partners, investors and overall stakeholders. From pivoting investment priorities, to identifying new areas of innovation, the investor landscape is constantly shifting.

For small to medium sized biotechs, it can be hard to keep up with promised milestones while also planning and anticipating the future of their companies. How could companies be preparing for not only the short-term but for years to come? What should be prioritized in the coming months? Who is still investing? How can they find the right partners for them as they move forward?

Details: The event is at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, June 9. Learn more.

June 9 — VC Ask Me Anything Virtual Event featuring The Artemis Fund

These livestreams, which will include audience Q&A, will tackle the big questions on everyone's mind, like how founders should adjust in the face of the pandemic and what fundraising will look like once the pandemic loosens its grip. Click here to stream.

Details: The event is at 2 to 3 p.m. on Tuesday, June 9. Learn more.

June 11 — Energy and Utilities: Drones, Connectivity, and Operations of the Future

Preparing for the future can be confusing. How can you keep up with industry and regulatory advancements, or know when to invest in new technology? That's why we teamed up with Southern Company to share how they're preparing — and how you can, too. Join Skyward and Southern Company for a discussion about energy and utility operations of the future and practical steps you can take now to prepare your enterprise.

Details: The event is at 1 p.m. on Thursday, June 11. Learn more.

June 11 — Venture vs The Virus: Texas Halo Fund IV

The Houston Angel Network presents Episode 3 of Venture vs The Virus. During this virtual event you will hear from the managing directors of the Texas Halo Fund on the launch of their new fund and the investment opportunities they are seeing as a result of the health crisis.

Details: The event is at 2 p.m. on Thursday, June 11. Learn more.

June 11 — Intro to Fundraising in FemTech & AMA with Juliana Garaizar and Dr. Barreto

Are you raising capital for your FemTech startup? Join us VIRTUALLY for an overview from venture capitalists and investors at Intro to Fundraising in FemTech & Ask Me Anything!

Details: The event is at 2 p.m. on Thursday, June 11. Learn more.

June 16 — Women in Tech Summit presented by Accenture

Capital Factory will host a virtual Women In Tech Summit dedicated to increasing diversity in the entrepreneurial and tech community while making its coworking space an inclusive environment for all.

Attendees can look forward to a special keynote guest, insightful fireside chats, discussion sessions, a startup showcase, Epic Office Hours, and panels on relevant topics facing the tech ecosystem.

Details: The event is at noon to 5 p.m. on Tuesday, June 16. Learn more.

June 17-19 — Virtual Rice Business Plan Competition

This year's Rice Business Plan Competition, which was planned for March 26 to 28, was canceled due to COVID-19, but the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship has decided to offer up an alternative: A virtual RBPC. Forty two student teams will compete over three virtual events.

Details: The event is from June 17 to 19. Learn more.

June 23 — Virtual Fireside Chat: Fredrik Tukk, Maersk Drilling

Join The Ion for a chat with Fredrik Tukk-Head of Innovation Scouting at Maersk Drilling about how organizations can benefit from innovation

Details: The event is at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, June 23. Learn more.

June 24 — The Ion Startup Demo Day

Top tier mentors, local investors, and personalized pitch feedback for participating startups -- nothing's changed but the address. Whether you're a serial entrepreneur or just looking to get involved in the community, this event is for YOU.

Details: The event is at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, June 24. Learn more.

June 30 — TMC Accelerator for Cancer Therapeutics Info Session

The TMC ACT team will answer questions including who should apply to TMC ACT, what are the timelines, and what value to expect.

Details: The event is at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, June 30. Learn more.

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