DURHAM – Cereius, Inc., a biotechnology company developing new methods to cross the well-fortified blood-brain barrier to treat cancer that has spread to the brain, has received critical reinforcements in that battle. 

The Durham company has obtained $6.75 million in equity financing. The financing includes a $6.5 million Series A round led by BioInnovation Capital and includes several individual investors. In addition, Cereius has received a $250,000 loan from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.


Cereius was founded in 2017 by Michael Zalutsky, Ph.D., and Kimberly Blackwell, M.D., and operates out of BioLabs North Carolina, a co-working space for life science startups in downtown Durham.

“This is BioInnovation Capital’s first investment in North Carolina” said Ed Field, CEO of Cereius and president of BioLabs North Carolina, “and this is a first bringing together the space at BioLabs, the capital from BioInnovation and the Biotech Center and the technology licensed exclusively from Duke University.”

According to Blackwell, 30 percent of advanced solid tumor patients, such as those with breast cancer, will experience spreading, called metastasis, of their cancer to the brain.

Offers significant benefits over traditional therapies

“This represents between 100,000 to 170,000 patients per year in the U.S.,” said Blackwell. “Incidence is growing due to more-effective systemic cancer therapies leading to improved survival. Our technology offers a very promising strategy that has the potential to have significant advantages over traditional therapies.”

Traditional chemotherapy drugs, delivered intravenously, cannot penetrate the brain’s unique system of self-protection, called the blood-brain barrier, however. This semi-permeable membrane separates the blood circulating in the brain and fluids in the central nervous system from the blood and fluids circulating elsewhere in the body. For years, researchers have worked to try to find ways to cross the blood-brain barrier to more effectively treat brain cancer.

The Blackwell and Zalutsky collaboration is inspiring, however, as the two previously dwelled in separate realms of biomedical research and medicine. Blackwell, vice president of early phase development and immuno-oncology at Lilly Oncology and an adjunct professor of medicine at Duke, sought more-effective treatments without the debilitating side effects of whole-brain radiation. Many patients previously treated successfully for breast cancer are found years later to have that cancer spread to the brain. However, whole-brain radiation, the traditional method for treating brain tumors, also damages healthy brain tissue and often results in debilitating side effects.

Serendipitously, Zalutsky, who is professor of radiology, radiation oncology and biomedical engineering at Duke, developed new ways to cross the protective blood-brain barrier to deliver tumor-killing radiation attached to drug molecules that also would not be absorbed by the healthy brain tissue. In addition, the technology can use radiation to diagnose brain cancer over conventional radiology methods.

Emerging field of oncology therapeutics

“Molecularly targeted radiotherapeutics [drugs including radioactive substances] offer multiple benefits compared with standard radiation treatments, because they can be used to treat metastases with minimal normal tissue toxicity,” said Zalutsky. “There is an emerging interest in targeted radiotherapeutics in the oncology therapeutic arena. The success of Bayer’s Xofigo drug for treating prostate cancer bone metastasis, alongside several recent large acquisitions, are notable examples.”

Eric Linsley, general partner of BioInnovation Capital, said, “Cereius brings a skilled team and unique solution to treating solid tumor brain metastasis. We look forward to working with Cereius to support the advancement of its radiotherapies and imaging agents.”

In conjunction with the financing, Linsley and Susie Harbouth, also a general partner at BioInnovation Capital, will join Cereius’ board of directors. Additionally, William Hawkins, chairman of the board of Immucor and BioVentus, former CEO of Medtronic and a member of the NCBiotech board of directors, has agreed to join the Cereius board.

(C) N.C. Biotech Center