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Health care startup aims to support cancer patients

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Acellus logo. | PHOTO COURTESY OF ACELLUS

WILMINGTON – A new health care startup backed by some well-known local leaders is seeking to make a difference in the day-to-day lives of cancer patients.

Founded in July 2021, Acellus Health is the product of conversations between Kris Vaddi, the CEO of unicorn cancer drug firm Prelude Therapeutics; Patrick Callahan, the founder of data analytics firm CompassRed that was acquired by local health technology firm LabWare; and Julie Ross, a longtime Incyte executive who developed a friendship with Vaddi during his tenure there.

“We were sitting at a big hematology meeting one day after [Vaddi] left Incyte, and he asked me, ‘Julie, if you didn’t have to worry about money, what would you do?’” Ross recalled. “I told him I would like to create some sort of a company that would help cancer patients navigate their way through their disease.”

That simple question would lead to Acellus Health, a name that is a play on the star Asellus Borealis in the Cancer constellation. 

Vice President of Clinical Affairs and Strategic Alliances Julie Ross | PHOTO COURTESY OF ACELLUS HEALTH

“The name helps illustrate the connection to cancer and also has the constant reminder that we want to ‘shoot for the stars’ to improve cancer care for all patients,” Ross said, noting the company’s hummingbird logo is drawn from the bird’s connotation of energy, strength and positivity.

The company launched its first product earlier this year after spending the last two years raising its angel investment round and fine tuning its offering: app-based health monitoring for cancer patients known as AceCancer.

While health technology has improved the care for chronic disease patients, such as those with diabetes or kidney disease, the use of such real-time monitoring is still in its infancy for millions of cancer patients nationwide, especially for those receiving experimental treatments, Ross said.

“Cancer treatment is no longer just chemo; we still give that but we also give immunotherapy and targeted therapy and very different types of medications that cause very wonky side effects. It’s just not as simple as throwing up and your hair falling out anymore,” she said.

Ross knows that experience firsthand, having survived melanoma, supporting her mother through lung cancer and losing her father to metastatic kidney cancer. She recalled seeing her father navigate a web of providers and experimental treatments that often left him confused and overwhelmed.

“One day we were sitting together, and he just started crying. He looked at me and he said, ‘What would happen to me if I didn’t have you?’” she recalled. “It was really hard, but I can’t even imagine what that experience would be like if you were truly alone, or if you are an immigrant who doesn’t speak English.”

The pandemic pushed many health care institutions and patients to more fully embrace technology in their care, including the use of telehealth visits and electronic patient-reported outcomes (ePROs) that can help to bridge that information gap. Acellus is focusing on the latter, as it has shown promising results in some medical studies to help keep patients on their treatments and length their survival times.

“There was one study in lung cancer that showed that patients who used an app like what we’ve developed versus patients who did not in lung cancer had a 5.2-month improvement in survival,” Ross said.

Although patients will ultimately benefit by having faster reporting of symptoms and side effects to their treatments, Ross said that Acellus is committed to never charging patients for the service. Their business model aims to have costs covered by medical institutions, insurance companies or even the specialized pharmacists who mix cancer treatment drugs.

One reason that Acellus is bullish on that business model is that the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has launched the Enhancing Oncology Model that is seeking to modernize cancer treatment, including the use of ePROs like Acellus’ product. It currently is targeting seven tumor types and reimbursing participating institutions for integrating technology into its care – and if successful that coverage to other cancers may grow.

The use of ePROs have also led to earlier preventative actions that can reduce unnecessary hospitalizations and would therefore reduce hospital expenses, Ross said. The same argument could be made to insurers to pay for the resource to reduce their costs.

Meanwhile, specialty pharmacists are required to check on their prescribed patients for side effects to the drugs, and the use of Acellus’ app could streamline their workflow and provide information at their fingertips, Ross said.

Headquartered in the I.M. Pei Building in Wilmington, Acellus has plans to grow its small workforce, including adding business development and medical officers, Ross said. For now, Ross now serves as vice president of clinical affairs and strategic alliances, while Vaddi serves as chairman and Callahan serves a president – both also remain in their roles at Prelude and LabWare. They’ve hired tech and health executives with experience at Google and Facebook, and will look to add a CEO this year, Ross said.

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