Startup targets tumor weapons

When they first hear the name of Johnny Stine's startup biotech company, some people say it sounds cool. At least two have said it sounds like a beer. But most just give him a puzzled look and say, "What?"

The name is Spaltudaq (SPALL-too-dack), and more people will struggle with its pronunciation beginning today. The company has raised $2 million, if it reaches certain milestones over the next two years, from Accelerator, the incubator for startups in South Lake Union.

The name has an unusual origin. Stine, a descendant of Snohomish Indians, said he visited relatives at the Tulalip Reservation for help in coming up with a unique name that had meaning.

He came away with Spaltudaq, an anglicized word for a ceremony in which a tribal shaman travels by canoe on a mission to rescue the souls of people whose time for death has yet to arrive.

"It was just right," Stine said. "It was really about what motivated me to start the company."

The company's ultimate goal is similar to that of at least 100 other biotechs before it — to create targeted cancer drugs with minimal side effects. But Stine, 40, a microbiologist formerly at Icos and Abgenix, is going about it differently.

He's starting with samples from patients' tumors, which have been attacked by antibodies, and pulling out the antibodies that didn't also attack healthy cells.

The ideal, Stine said, would be to find the most common antibodies that people make to fight, say, breast cancer, then mass-produce genetically engineered copies of them as a drug.

The traditional antibody-drug-development model has been to start with a cancer cell, look at the hallmarks that seem to distinguish it from a healthy cell, then create an antibody to kill it. Many antibodies developed this way hit cancer cells but also healthy ones. A few companies have been successful with the method, like the developers of Rituxan, but many more have failed.

To get started, Stine — the company's sole employee so far — has partnered with Oregon Health & Science University and Leroy Hood's Institute for Systems Biology. The scientific advisory board includes Patrick Gray, chief executive of Nura, a Seattle biotech startup; and Klaus Rajewsky, a pathologist at Harvard Medical School.

Investors include MPM Capital, Arch Venture Partners, Amgen Ventures, OVP Venture Partners, Versant Ventures and Alexandria Real Estate Equities.

Spaltudaq has two years' worth of cash, enough time to show whether or not its method works in animals well enough to deserve a shot in human trials.

Carl Weissman, president of Accelerator, said the technology is much more popular with investors than the name.

"You could call this ABC Oncology, and it wouldn't matter, because what Johnny has is a fantastic technology that the investors are excited about," Weissman said.

Luke Timmerman: 206-515-5644 or