SURGE founder and CEO Dr. Michael Goldberg in the lab/Courtesy of SURGE Therapeutics
Postoperative recurrence and metastasis are responsible for 90 percent of cancer-related deaths, which Dr. Michael Goldberg, Founder and CEO of newly launched SURGE Therapeutics, knows all too well.
Goldberg tells bioroom he has a sense of moral outrage against cancer. He lost his childhood best friend to the disease, and since forming SURGE in 2018, he has lost three friends to a post-operative cancer recurrence.
“It’s very, very personal and professional to me,” Goldberg said.
In fact, Goldberg has been doing cancer research since high school. On his 16th birthday, he picked up a book about cancer and told his parents that he would cure the disease by his 17th birthday.
Although he missed that one-year goal, “it just means I have unfinished business and I don’t intend to let up until I’m successful,” he said.
So Goldberg went all out and left his position as a professor at Harvard Medical School to found SURGE, which raised $26 million in Series A funding led by Camford Capital. Camford was joined by Khosla Ventures, Intuitive Ventures, Pitango HealthTech, 8VC, Alumni Ventures and the Cancer Research Institute. Notably, SURGE is the institution’s first-ever venture investment, Goldberg said.
Nine million patients undergo surgical tumor resection each year worldwide, including 700,000 in the United States alone. In 40 percent of them, the cancer will return within five years.
SURGE has developed an intraoperative immunotherapy technology called SURGERx, based on pioneering work from Goldberg’s Harvard lab.
The approach is based on adjusting the timing and method of administering immunotherapy.
“Changing how, when, and where cancer immunotherapy is used should dramatically improve patient survival outcomes,” Goldberg said.
There’s no doubt that immunotherapy has changed the outlook for some cancer patients, but only 15 percent benefit permanently, he noted.
“Trying to understand why response rates to cancer immunotherapy remain so unsatisfactorily low, it dawned on me that it wasn’t just about identifying the optimal targets for great molecules to treat the target,” Goldberg said. “We are administering our therapies in the wrong way and to the wrong patients.
“Most cancer drugs are given to patients with bulky tumors throughout the body. This means that approximately 95% of the drug does not get to the tumor and instead causes side effects in healthy tissues that ultimately limit the dose that can be administered,” he explained.
Surgery, the standard treatment for solid tumors, can cause the cancer to come back and spread, Goldberg said.
“You want to jump to the front of the translation queue when the immune system is basically as healthy as it ever will be once diagnosed,” he said.
However, surgery can cause transient but acute immunosuppression. SURGE’s approach specifically addresses this surgically induced immunosuppression.
Currently, cancer surgery is just a physical intervention. Physicians typically do not administer any immunotherapy during surgical tumor resection. Goldberg called this a “hugely missed opportunity.”
“You’re telling me you had access to exactly the right place at exactly the right time and aren’t concentrating or retaining 100% of the effective dose right then and there? We can change that,” he said.
SURGE’s proprietary injectable, biodegradable hydrogel is injected at the site of surgical tumor resection.
The hydrogel is modular and can be loaded with biologics, small molecules, or hydrophobic drugs. It can be injected into the empty space where the tumor once was, regardless of its shape and size or location in the body. “This allows us to therapeutically address many different interesting targets,” Goldberg said.
Goldberg, together with postdoc student Dr. Chun Gwon Park conducted several experiments on mice with aggressive, metastatic cancer. They delivered a single dose of a single drug in a broad, localized manner at the site of tumor resection.
“This had never been observed before in this mouse model, which typically required repeated administration of quadruple combination immunotherapy,” Goldberg said. “That was the most compelling data I’ve ever seen.”
Their research was published in Science Translational Medicine and formed the basis for SURGE.
The new company has attracted interest and commitment from biotech luminaries such as Robert Langer, co-founder of Moderna, who serves as Chair of SURGE’s Scientific Advisory Board, and Francis Cuss, MD, former CSO at Bristol Myers Squibb. Elizabeth Jaffee, MD, past president of the American Association for Cancer Research, also serves on the board.
SURGE will use the Series A funds to further develop SURGERx, expanding the team and “creating value by accumulating clinical data.” The company will be submitting its first investigational application for a new drug “shortly,” Goldberg said, with a follow-up program to follow in the “hopefully not too distant future.”
In April, the FDA’s Oncology Center of Excellence announced Project FrontRunner, which aims to advance new therapies in the advanced/metastatic setting where treatment is not expected to be curative.
“There is a lot of clinical data to support the notion that patients respond better when they have a lower tumor burden and a healthier immune system,” Goldberg said.