STL startup working on potential cancer breakthrough

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby

Thumbnail for 9589By: Casey Nolen


According to the American Cancer Society, there are more than 1.5 million new cases of cancer each year in the United States. A St. Louis startup is trying to change what a cancer diagnosis means with a potentially ground breaking new form of cancer treatment.

It is a discovery that is almost hidden in a modest Central West End workspace with the world headquarters of Immunophotonics. The startup’s supply of a potential medical breakthrough squeezed into a fridge more likely found in a dorm room.

“That’s not clinical grade material,” Immunophotonics COO Lu Alleruzzo said, pointing to the refrigerator. “But the volume of the drug substance in that fridge could treat hundreds of patients.”

Patients suffering from a disease than claims more than 500,000 lives every year the U.S.

“We never use the word cure,” CEO Thomas Hode said. “Cancer’s always going to be around, but there can be more or less effective methods to actually treat it.”

Hode and Alleruzzo are part of the St. Louis startup working to radically change the way cancer is treated. Instead of chemotherapy or radiation for cancer tumors, Immunophotonics is developing a cancer vaccine, two shots into a tumor intended to train a patient’s body to be allergic to its own cancer, potentially destroying the tumor.

In initial trials outside the U.S., Immunophotonics has had some success treating patients with end stage tumors. Some patients given just months to live are living cancer free, just four years later.

“For us, not only is it promising, but that’s an exciting impact to have on someone. And I hope we can continue to do that,” Alleruzzo said.

“Who wouldn’t want to get up in the morning and be a part of that?” David Smoller with Cultivation Capital asked.

If investor eagerness is any indication of the company’s odds of success, then the past few months may be a good sign. Smoller is part of a local group that just raised nearly $2 million to invest in Immunophotonics after, he says, scrutinizing the company’s business plan and preliminary test results. While the Immunophotonics team is reluctant to talk about a timetable for their vaccine. Smoller says his clients expect a return on their investment in about five years.

“And to do that we need companies that are real. And in this case, these guys look to be real,” Smoller said.

Immunophotonics says the new investors will help speed up the process of bringing trials to this country and hopefully bring the vaccine to the market.

“Just seeing what our therapy can do really humbles me as a person and I’m excited to do whatever it takes to get this to the masses,” Alleruzzo said.

Immunophotonics is quick to point out that the company is still in the early stages of development and the approval process. Other researchers in St. Louis with Washington University at the Siteman Cancer Center are also working on cancer vaccines.

The hope is, with more trials, a vaccine could prove to be not only more effective and less invasive, but a less expensive way to treat cancer.