Y Combinator-Backed Ixchel Predicts How Cancer Drugs Will Behave In Humans Before You Even Swallow A Pill

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Biotech startup Ixchel Scientific hopes to bring higher success rates to trialed cancer drugs using an environment that better represents the human body.

The YC-backed startup does this by taking cancer cells that would normally be tested in a cold, hard plastic dish and puts them in the proteins of human organs instead. “Our composition of our cultures mimics what is in those organs,” co-founder Mukti Parikh told TechCrunch.

The approach is similar to YC alumni Notable Labs, which takes patient’s own cancerous brain cells and tests FDA approved drug combinations on them. However, Ixchel plans to partner with pharmaceutical companies to use the technology for new drug development.

We’re trying to get as close to real as possible, but we also have to balance the complexity of the system.
— Mukti Parikh, co-founder Ixchel
The lab Parikh and her co-founder Julia Kirshner run out of Biocube in San Jose hold the beginnings of what they believe could be a first in using a human environment without testing on actual humans to find useful pharmaceutical cures. This is important as more than 95 percent of all cancer drug trials fail when it gets to human trials simply because the petri dish environment does not yield the same results as the human environment.

The Ixchel method, appropriately named for the Mayan goddess of healing, opens the way to test drugs on cells that have low survival rates outside the human body, too. “For multiple myeloma in the bone marrow it’s very difficult to test because the cells don’t survive past 24 hours. They just don’t survive at all,” Parikh said.


But she admits the system isn’t perfect. “No system outside the body is perfect,” said Parikh “We’re trying to get as close to real as possible, but we also have to balance the complexity of the system.”

The startup already has partnerships in place with what they told me are well-known pharmaceutical companies “in the top 10” that they couldn’t yet mention, but is also creating a testing kit for other labs to use in order to test their own chemical compounds in a human-like environment for any type of cancer.

Kirshner likened the kits to hair dye you buy at the store, but for creating the right environment outside the body to test cancer cells. “You go and buy a kit for red hair or blonde hair and you’ve got the dye, the brush, the bottles, whatever, that’s what we will have but the kit for blonde hair is like for lungs and the kit for brown hair is liver,” Kirshner said.

The analogy, oddly, made sense. Scientists can take these kits and, just as Parikh and Kirshner have done, run the test in their own lab to get what Ixchel believes will be more accurate results.

The pharma companies Ixchel is in talks with also asked about access to the reagents in the kits and may create a distribution deal with other labs through a partnership in the future. “There’s great interest, and we’ve given out samples to a couple of labs,” Parikh said.

The kits may be especially useful for individual labs that want more control. It also saves human labor costs for Ixchel if they can sell the kits instead of doing the tests in their tiny lab, by themselves.

The kits can test for general cells or cells directly from a patient as well. Labs looking for drugs that might work on patients with rare diseases may find that especially useful.

Edit note: We incorrectly named YC alumni Atomwise in this article. We meant YC alumni Notable Labs. We regret the error.