The news world is saturated with the significant number of deaths linked to COVID-19 since the start of 2020, but cancer is still the leading cause of premature death in France by far (source: Public Health France). More than 150,000 people die each year from this disease. To help provide better treatment outcomes for these patients, French company Nanobiotix offers cutting-edge technology that seeks to revolutionize cancer treatment using nanophysics.
This company, whose market capitalization exceeded 180 million euros in August 2020, is constantly looking to undertake new therapeutic feats. The floor was given to the co-founder and CEO of Nanobiotix, Laurent Levy, to discuss this French innovation within our Blasting Talks project, which consists of focusing on the challenges that companies face during the evolution of the digital world and during this unprecedented period of health crisis.
You created Nanobiotix in 2003, what launched this idea 17 years ago?
As soon as I finished my thesis on nanotechnologies more than 20 years ago, I asked myself the question of the applications of nanophysics in the field of health. A few years later after graduating from the State University of New York at Buffalo in the United States, I decided to create Nanobiotix with a strong conviction: that the extraordinary properties of hafnium oxide nanoparticles can save lives. Therefore, my teams and I have done everything to turn this idea into a concrete reality for patients.
Your company is a pioneer in nanomedicine. Can you explain to us what is nanomedicine?
Initially, in the 1990s or even 2000s, the properties of nanoparticles were exploited to convey and transport drugs. The idea was then to encapsulate the drugs in nanoscopic objects, in order to facilitate their delivery to certain areas of the body and make them less toxic. Some time later, we began to consider that the nanoparticle itself could become the active agent. This is what we did at Nanobiotix: our functionalized hafnium oxide nanoparticles amplify the efficiency of X-rays, by attracting them and magnifying the dose help destroy tumor cells without increasing the dosage in surrounding healthy tissue. This new approach comes strictly from physics instead of biology or chemistry, unlike much of the science behind drug development today.
Your therapeutic approach is completely different from traditional methods, how does your innovation distinguish itself?
For ten years, in oncology, we have only spoken of "precision medicine" or "personalized medicine". The pharmaceutical industry and biotechnology companies are developing new therapeutic solutions based on the biology of patients. They try to find the right receptor that corresponds to the specific characteristics of the patient's disease in order to deliver the most precise treatment possible. It is true that, in recent years, approaches related to cell therapy and especially Immuno-Oncology have provided more effective treatments, however these technologies are applicable to increasingly small patient subpopulations. Personally, I think we are reaching the end of this logic. Our approach at Nanobiotix is not biological, but linked to physics. When you irradiate a tumor with X-rays, you destroy it, regardless of its biological and cellular characteristics. It’s just mechanical. The nanoparticles that we are developing amplify the effectiveness of X-rays: we call it a "radioenhancer". As the laws of physics are universal, it allows us to work on a large number of cancers with the ultimate aim of treating millions of people.
We have been living for 7 months in an unprecedented crisis causing health to be placed at the top of the concerns of many governments around the world. How did you experience this period with your teams?
Like everyone else, we did what we could at the start and we adapted ourselves. After ensuring the welfare of our teams, we ensured the continuity of the company's activities. Our development is largely based on clinical trials conducted in hospitals, with volunteer patients. For this part of the work, we felt a certain impact like all the players in our industry. Faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, many clinical centers around the world have stopped recruiting. And this is not over. We therefore suffered delays. But it's still manageable, for now. For the future, we will have to adapt to see how to continue to develop products in an environment where the coronavirus could last.
Are cancer patients more at risk for coronavirus?
It is certain that vulnerable people risk developing more severe forms of COVID-19. Cancer patients are one of them. But the greatest risk is that these patients will no longer go to the hospital for fear of being infected. This situation risks creating significant collateral damage.
You help millions of patients who undergo radiotherapy, what are the reported benefits for them?
60% of cancer patients receive X-rays as part of their treatment. They undergo radiation therapy. This represents a huge population. Some of them get better and some don't. The reason is simple: you cannot always give the necessary dose of rays so as not to cause too much damage to healthy tissue. Our nanoparticle is injected directly into the patient's tumor before radiotherapy. When the patient receives the rays, the nanoparticle strongly amplifies their radiation in a hyperlocalized manner. Our solution thus increases the destructive effect of rays on cancer cells, without accentuating the damage caused to surrounding tissues. The benefits are potentially immense: increasing the chances of recovery, reducing the side effects of radiation therapy and enhancing the effectiveness of other combined treatments. In fact, we are part of the path opened more than a century ago by Marie Curie, which paved the way, thanks to physics, to a wave of innovations of universal scope in oncology: radiotherapy, brachytherapy, nuclear medicine, etc.
What are the major challenges of tomorrow for the fight against cancer according to you?
I believe that the main challenge today is to return to innovations that are useful to as many people as possible. Cancer strikes the entire world population. The older we get, the more likely we will develop cancers, and perhaps even new cancers. It will therefore be necessary to find products that are broadly applicable. Another challenge will be to think about all the treatments according to the quality of life of the patients. Healing and saving people are good, but giving them the means to live well and sustainably is even better. A product must meet a medical need and be understood holistically, and not just from the point of view of healing.
Recently the Horizon Europe program, which will begin in 2021, promised to put the fight against cancer and save 3 million patients from this disease by 2030, can we believe in this kind of research and innovation program?
I firmly believe it is only a matter of time! Now the number of "3 million" is in my opinion too restrictive. We need to be much more ambitious. If we look at the numbers as cold hard facts, we have roughly 20 million new cases a year. Half are poorly healed, which is much more than the 3 million put forward. I sincerely believe that we have the means to go further, we must not skimp on these programs.
Today Nanobiotix has three subsidiaries: in Europe (Germany, Spain) but also in the United States, do you have any expansion projects in preparation?
Cancer is not a local disease, but a global public health emergency. Our expansion projects are linked to our desire to make our treatments and our innovations accessible to the world population ... more than to open subsidiaries in all countries.
Some leaders, thinkers, entrepreneurs or public figures believe that after a crisis like the one of the coronavirus, it becomes essential to rethink the world of tomorrow. Do you have any new projects that have emerged since this virus?
COVID-19 is a major public health challenge. But cancer remains the second cause of death in France, with more than 150,000 deaths per year, which is far ahead of COVID-19. Despite this crisis, our ambition has not changed. We want to help more cancer patients. This is the step we are currently taking by regularly publishing scientific studies with promising results. Tomorrow we could tackle other pathologies such as neurodegenerative diseases. Our mission is simple: to help people live better, longer lives.
Read this article in Blasting News in english : here
Read this article in Blasting News in french : here