Leah Labs

Leah Labs co-founders Wes Wierson and Zach Warejoncas are starting a business and hope to create genetic techniques to treat cancer in dogs

Helping man's best friend could also help mankind.

That's the idea at the core of Life Engine Animal Health or LEAH Labs, an early-stage gene editing start-up in Rochester that is working on a cancer treatment for dogs.

If successful, the genetic editing model could later be used to battle cancer in people.

An estimated 300,000 dogs die of B cell lymphoma cancer every year. That type of cancer is similar to Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in humans.

There are treatments that cost $5,000 to $7,000 that can extend the life of a dog with that type of cancer for about a year. The co-founders of LEAH Labs believe they have created a treatment to substantially extend the life of an dog with B cell lymphoma for years and possibly even cure the cancer.

"It's clearly an unmet need in the veterinary community," said co-founder Zach Warejoncas in his lab in the Minnesota Biobusiness Center in downtown Rochester. "And it's a real opportunity to learn a lot about genetic engineering … and save dogs."

'A hack to get to humans'

Beside generating revenue, creating a treatment for dogs is expected to help solidify the science to map the way toward working with people. Dogs and humans share 85 percent of the same genes. The two species are much closer than the traditional lab mouse.

"It's kind of a hack to get to humans," said co-founder and CEO Wesley Wierson.

Co-founder Dr. Stephen Ekker added, "Why would I cure mice, if I can do the same science on dogs? If it works for dogs, it's a potential product and it is important new scientific findings."

Wierson created a new gene editing method that could be use in non-viral CAR T cell cancer therapy, while at Iowa State University with funding from a National Institute of Health grant.

The process showed promise as a cancer treatment, though it would be very expensive and time-consuming to develop a product in the very competitive CAR T cell market full of similar gene editing start-ups. That inspired Wierson and co-founder Dr. Stephen Ekker to take a different path.

Soon after his graduation, LEAH labs was born and it licensed the technology from Mayo Clinic.

"The dog became a really nice way to use gene editing as a tool to create a product at the consumer level that would be accepted … certainly by dog owners," said Wierson.

Instead of years of dealing with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, LEAH Labs now is facing a more manageable process with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

Passionate customers

As for market for LEAH Labs treatment, there are an estimated 90 million dogs in the U.S. with 68 percent of U.S. households having at least one pet.

Pet owners are a growing market of passionate customers or as Wierson said simply, "People really love their dogs."

With an idea for a product, the fledgling firm needed a place to develop the process and prove the concept will work. Rochester has business accelerators to help young businesses, but this start-up need lab space and gene editing equipment.

That led to Mayo Clinic's recent creation, The Hatchery. Ekker, who is also the director of the Mayo Clinic Office of Entrepreneurship, explained that the lack of available lab space has long been a hurdle for start-ups like LEAH. The Hatchery fills that niche.

"We used the A‌i‌r‌b‌n‌b‌ model initially, putting them up in unused labs until they had to move," said Ekker.

Recently, The Hatchery moved into Mayo Clinic lab/office space in the Minnesota Biobusiness Center.

Wierson and Warejoncas have worked on proving their idea in the lab, but now they are looking to start testing on actual dogs. However, they first need financing to fund that stage.

To help raise the capital, they have turned to a new type of SEC-approved crowdfunding called WeFunder. This is allows small investors to take a risk on start-ups to essentially buy the promise of future stock in the company.

There is a direct link to the campaign on www.leahlabs.com. It can accept minimum investments of $100 now. The campaign will officially launch on the main WeFunder site on Sept. 5 and it can run for 180 days. There is a $4 million valuation cap.

"We think this has a chance to go viral," said Wierson.

Once they have funding, the LEAH team expects to take four to five months to prove the treatment works in dogs, and then to move on to investigator trials with a veterinarian program. Mayo Clinic will not be involved in the development or testing of the canine treatment.

"If everything goes according to plan, we could be taking a product to market within two to three years," said Wierson.

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