A Polish company develops novel drugs to fight blood cancer and solid tumours with targeted therapies

Acute myeloid leukaemia is a severe form of blood cancer. Known as AML, it is relatively rare, with about 20 000 new cases per year in Europe and an equal number in the United States. Yet it is highly aggressive, and for adult patients it has the lowest survival rate of all blood cancers. Available treatments have significant side effects and typically only help for a while. So far, there’s no cure except for allogenic stem cell transplants, which are associated with significant toxicities.

Novel drugs developed by Ryvu Therapeutics, a Polish biotechnology company, could give new hope to patients suffering from AML and other life-threatening cancers. Ryvu is developing drugs that use natural cell processes to stop cancer cells growing. Some of their drug candidates aim to help the immune system identify and kill cancer cells, while others exploit the vulnerabilities of cancer cells to destroy them.

“Our body is a very powerful tool,” says Krzysztof Brzozka, Ryvu’s chief scientific officer. “We have all had cancerous cells in our body, but we barely even noticed them because our immune system eliminated those tumour cells. On rare occasions though, the misbehaving cells are so aggressive or immune-suppressive that we see the tumours, and we see them spread as cancer disease.”

Small molecules with big potential

Humanity has made huge progress in fighting cancer. The scientific and medical battle started centuries ago with the first radiotherapies and chemotherapies. These therapies kill cancer cells, but also healthy cells. “Now we learnt that there are natural internal pathways that can be exploited to destroy the abnormal, cancerous cells,” explains Cristina Niculescu, a senior life science specialist in the European Investment Bank team working on a loan of the EU bank to Ryvu. “We can specifically target the cancer cells without touching the healthy cells.”

The European Investment Bank is providing Ryvu with a €22 million venture  debt financing to support the company’s research and clinical trials.

One way to target the cells without harming the healthy cells is through small molecules – compounds that bind to specific proteins in a cell and switch them on or off to produce a desired antitumoral result.

Ryvu has built the capacity to quickly identify and optimise molecules with different mechanisms of actions tailored to different cancer types and treatment approaches. It currently has two drug candidates in clinical trials: SEL24 and RVU120, both kinase inhibitors that block cell processes driving cancer growth.

Both drug candidates are being tested for the treatment of blood cancer. RVU120 is also being tested against solid tumours, such as breast or prostate cancer.  These drug candidates come as capsules and can be taken at home – a big advantage for patients typically burdened with frequent hospital visits, blood cell transfusions, recurrent infections, pain and fatigue.

>@Ryvu Therapeutics
© Ryvu Therapeutics

Targeted cancer therapies for oncology challenges

One of the challenges in the development of new oncology therapeutics is the limited number of protein targets known to be addressable with small molecules. So Ryvu is exploring two other cancer treatment pathways:

  • Synthetic lethality exploits vulnerabilities of cancer cells. In some cases, these cells lose some function because of a mutated gene. This makes them dependent on other genes. And if you switch off these genes with targeted drugs, the cancer cells die
  • Immune-oncology reactivates immune cells through the use of selective small molecules, enabling them to kill cancer cells again

Scientists are still learning how to use our body to fight disease. “The more we understand cancer and our immune responses to it, the better and the safer the treatments will be,” Brzozka explains.

Ryvu, which was founded in 2007, now employs 150 people, mostly highly skilled scientists at its headquarters in Kraków. Brzozka’s dream is to build, in Kraków, something like Boston’s Kendall Square, where leading biotech firms rub shoulders with big pharmaceutical companies and top universities, creating a vibrant environment for innovation.

“Apart from believing in this company’s scientific and technological capabilities,” says Anna Stodolkiewicz, an investment officer at the European Investment Bank who worked on the Ryvu loan, “the project is based in a cohesion region, where we can also help foster a lively biotech ecosystem.”

>@Ryvu Therapeutics
© Ryvu Therapeutics

EU funds for cutting-edge research in Poland

The European Investment Bank’s venture debt financing is backed by the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI). “We were impressed by their pipeline data so far,” says Niculescu. “Their strategy seems very promising.”

Yet, biotech projects are relatively high-risk due to the uncertainty of clinical trial results. “Without the EFSI guarantee, we would not be able to finance this project,” Stodolkiewicz says. Market conditions for equity type financing are also tough right now. “There is high inflation, a volatile złoty exchange rate and a war at the border,” she adds. “Many private investors are more cautious about engaging in innovative but risky investments.”

Since 2015, the EIB has invested around €1 billion in research projects to treat cancer, which kills ten million people worldwide each year. “A lot of projects may fail, and we may lose money which could have been used to build a new highway,” Niculescu says. “But if one of them makes it, it will change the lives of millions of people.”