Houston-based veterinary biotech startup modernizes cancer treatments for dogs
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."
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.