Google’s quiet partner on cancer-detection project: Mass.-based Entrega

Entrega board members Robert Langer, Jonathan Behr, and Colin Gardner. (Globe Photo / Jim Davis.)
Entrega board members Robert Langer, Jonathan Behr, and Colin Gardner. (Globe Photo / Jim Davis.)

Earlier in the week, Google took the wraps off an intriguing project that is part of its secretive Google X skunkworks: a magnetic nanoparticle that would travel through the bloodstream searching for early signs of cancer. But what Google executive Andrew Conrad didn’t mention is that a Boston-area startup, Entrega Inc., is working with his company to actually deliver the nanoparticles, using a novel kind of pill.

I wrote about Entrega’s drug delivery system last year; the technology sprang from work done at the University of California Santa Barbara. Entrega’s approach packs a pill with tiny circular wafers coated with a drug — or a substance like Google’s cancer-detecting nanoparticles. Once the pill dissolves, the wafers inside attach themselves to the lining of the small intestine, and hang on until the substance can be absorbed into the system. (Imagine a nicotine patch that is affixed inside your body.) When its work is done, the patch lets go and is excreted.

“Since January, Entrega and Google have had this joint project,” says Robert Langer, an MIT professor who is chairman of Entrega’s scientific advisory board. Langer says Google gave Entrega a “significant grant” to explore ways to deliver its nanoparticles orally — as opposed to with an injection — but “they didn’t want anybody to know they were doing this.”

“It has been fun,” says Langer. “The Google people come into town every so often, and sometimes they come to my office and go over stuff. They’ve been making good progress.” He says the partnership is now entering a second phase of animal testing, but neither the Entrega delivery system nor the Google nanoparticles have yet had a human clinical trial.

Langer says that Google Ventures, the company’s venture capital arm, initially made the connection between Entrega and the Google X life sciences team. Entrega employees are split between a lab in Cambridge and the Back Bay offices of PureTech Ventures, which helped found the company; PureTech partner David Steinberg serves as Entrega’s acting CEO.

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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