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.

Myra Davis is responsible for Texas Children's Hospital's technology and innovation — two completely separate things, she says. Courtesy of TCH

A few months ago, Myra Davis got a whole other slew of responsibilities with the addition of just one word to her title: Innovation. The senior vice president and chief information and innovation officer of Texas Children's Hospital oversees a team of individuals not only focused on bringing in new technologies and ideas — but maintaining those processes.

Currently, the hospital is in a transition phase looking to better represent its ongoing innovation, as well as bring in new aspects of innovation. Along with Paola Álvarez-Malo, assistant vice president of strategic and business planning at TCH, Davis is looking to keep TCH at the forefront of hospital innovation and pediatric care.

Davis sat down with InnovationMap to discuss the hospital's transformation process and how, while the work together, technoogy and innovation bring two different things to the table.

InnovationMap: What has been your initial focus since assuming the “innovation” part of your title a few months ago?

Myra Davis: When I was appointed, I stepped back and asked myself how we can go about doing this. I knew it was more than the need for technology. We needed to begin to leverage data and a resource that can be agnostic to the organization to help drive strategy.

IM: Why is being both the innovation officer and the information officer important?

MD: Typically, an innovation officer would pass off a new technology to the information officer and hope that they keep it up. Innovation is more than technology. It's about change, and advocating for change in practices, how we hire, how we look at outcomes, and how we look at data. Innovation is radical disruption of how we do things today. It's a full-time job, and then it backs up into including startups and new companies.

IM: Where are you in the transition process?

MD: We're in a discovery phase, which is almost complete. It will drive an outcome of what the structure should look like for an organization of our size and magnitude, and what additional resources we need to have. For example, today to make an appointment, you need to call and make an appointment at the front desk. But we should be disrupting that process and leverage technology. We should have goals of decreasing calls moving forward. We don't yet have the structure to bring those ideas to the table, but that's where I see it going.

IM: How have you seen innovation become a bigger player in health care?

MD: Health care is always a service organization. We're here to serve patients and help them get better. I think clinically, there's always been a need to stay innovative because it's medicine. Now, we're seeing the need to infuse the behaviors of innovative thinking and acting in our operating models to meet the health care model of service. What I mean by that is the cost of care. The models must change because reimbursements are changing, populations are changing, the demand of patients have changed. When I started, we never had patients not wanting to come in for care. Now, patients are saying they don't want to come in because it costs too much. While there's been a plethora of technologies — we have a host of technology systems — but we're realizing we've only scratched the surface with the opportunities we have.

I often talk about the little "i" versus the big "i" in the word "innovation." The little "i" is leveraging what you have already — that's an innovative game changer. Then there's the big "i" and that's the commercialization of a product or partnering with a startup company and they go public. When we say innovation, most people think of that big "i" but it's a spectrum.

IM: What’s the big technology you see disrupting the health care industry?

MD: I think it's data science. It's a major breakthrough. For prescriptive, predictive, and descriptive reasons, we can't afford to keep doing things ourselves. The market is getting competitive, and we must get to decision making faster. You got to go with the data. You can't be so precise it keeps you from being creative, but you have to start with knowledge.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.