NZ RNA start-up secures significant investment to progress cancer research

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New Zealand start-up Amaroq Therapeutics, which was recently spun out of the University of Otago, has secured a NZ$14m investment to progress its RNA therapy to target cancer.

The founding research for the therapy was conducted at the University of Otago. Amaroq Therapeutics was created with the support of Otago Innovation.

The company said long non-coding RNAs (lncRNAs), often referred to as 'dark matter' of the genome, are molecules naturally present in cells. Acting as key cell regulators despite not coding for proteins they have become a focus of research globally. The emergence of new sequencing technologies has provided the opportunity to research these molecules further with significant investments being made globally in companies focused on the technology..

Amaroq Therapeutics, led by founder and chief scientific officer Dr Sarah Diermeier, pioneered the use of lncRNA molecules as therapeutic targets and diagnostic markers in cancer treatment. They will be working on therapies to treat common cancers such as breast, colorectal and liver cancer.

“Through exploring patient data, our research has shown that specific lncRNA molecules are highly expressed in cancer cells but not normal healthy cells. Removing these lncRNA molecules from cancer cells can slow down the process of the cells dividing. This gives us real hope that lncRNA molecules could hold the key for treating many forms of common cancer,” said Dr Diermeier.

According to David Christensen, the CEO of Otago Innovation, “It has been a privilege to work with and alongside Sarah to form and secure investment into Amaroq. Through Amaroq, Dr Diermeier and her team has the potential to revolutionise the approach to cancer treatment and Otago Innovation is glad to support this project to reach its full potential.”

The NZ$14 million investment was led by Australian-based life science investor Brandon Capital along with Otago Innovation, NZ Innovation Booster and Cure Kids Ventures.

The investment benefits from a Callaghan Innovation Repayable Grant administered by Brandon Capital, one of the four partners selected as part of the Callaghan Innovation Technology Incubator Programme. Amaroq is the first recipient of investment from Brandon Capital under the program and the investment also stands as the largest investment ever secured by Otago Innovation.

“We have a world-class team working at the very cutting edge of an emerging therapeutic area, and that’s why we are excited to lead this investment,” said Duncan Mackintosh, the head of Brandon Capital New Zealand.

“Knowing that there are very few companies exploring lncRNA for oncology purposes makes this an exciting opportunity and the fact that it could prove helpful in the fight against cancer, a disease area affecting so many, is compelling,” added Mr Mackintosh.

“We hope that our new treatments will significantly improve survival rates for cancer patients and are able to address issues such as resistance to chemotherapeutics. In the first instance, we focus on treating cancers with a high unmet clinical need such as breast, colorectal and liver cancers, which are major health concerns in New Zealand,” added Dr Diermeier.