Gillian Isabelle, "Enlivity: Making Cancer Therapy Bearable"


Scientist and intrapreneur Gillian Isabelle, PhD, founded Enlivity to make chemotherapy more bearable for cancer patients. The first product is a supplement invented by an oncologist that helps prevent sores from forming in the mouths and digestive tracts of patients receiving chemotherapy, a problem that can delay life-saving treatment. A fun interview with an infectiously affable guest.

Episode highlights:

  • Gillian Isabelle studied material science at UC Berkeley and received her PhD from MIT.

  • Worked at Corning and then at PureTech Health, the remarkable promising new pharma company started in Boston.

  • At the Broad Institute she set up and ran the business development office to bring is licensing revenue from the Broad’s research.

  • Gillian Isabelle is the founder of Enlivity, a startup dedicated to improving the lives of patients receiving chemotherapy.

  • Radiation and chemotherapy have serious side effects that include sores in the mouth and the digestive tract. Such sores can cause treatment to be reduced or suspended, lowering the chances of the patient surviving the cancer.

  • Patients with mouth sores may need to be administered opioids to help them endure treatment.

  • These side effects also have economic consequences. Patients with sores may need to be admitted to a hospital in order to continue receiving therapy. Providers have an economic incentive to help to prevent hospitalization due to side effects from therapy.

  • Value-based reimbursement for treatments, which is now the rule among payors, increases the incentive of managing side effects from treatment.

  • Supporting the health of the oral and digestive mucosa allows patients to eat and drink normally and to maintain a healthy weight.

  • Gillian observed a gap in cancer care. Great work is being done in developing new therapies but those can take decades before they help patients. Little is being done to help patients endure current therapies. If we can help patients better tolerate existing therapies, we can achieve better treatment outcomes and lower cost of care in the short run.

  • She sees dealing with side effects as relatively low-hanging fruit.

  • Gillian’s research, including talking to a lot of doctors, nurses and patients, showed that the most likely path to improving outcomes was to work on making nutrients that are known to support the health of tissues more bio-available. She speculated that using technology for targeted released of compounds in the body could help make these nutrients more available.

  • The first product, Healios, is a compound of glutamine. Glutamine has been known to provide amino acids, the building blocks of protein, that support tissue health and immune function. Unfortunately, glutamine by itself is not bio-available. A pediatric oncologist at MD Anderson, a leading cancer clinic in Houston, invented a compound of glutamine with sugars which is readily absorbed by the body. This patented formulation is licensed exclusively to Enlivity.

  • Gillian intends Healios to be the first of a whole stable of products that support patients receiving treatment.

  • Gillian met her co-founder Jill Tobacco via LinkedIn. Jill brings marketing experience and to complement Gillian’s technical background. Gillian was looking for a nutritionist who was good at marketing. Jill bought into the vision.

  • Looking for a co-founder displays self-awareness on the part of Gillian Isabelle for knowing what she needed help with.

  • Before asking Gillian how she plans to go to market, Sal talks a bit about his portfolio company Akili Interactive which expects to be the first company to get approval from the FDA to market a video game to treat ADHD or attention deficit. Akili’s approach is to actually train the young person’s brain to make it easier to pay attention. It’s meant to be a therapy for the underlying cause of the problem, not just a treatment for the symptoms. This is a link to an article in the Financial Times about the founder Eddie Martucci, PhD and the company.

  • Sal mentions Akili to highlight the type of opportunity he sees in Boston’s startup ecosystem. Accredited investors should contact to learn more.

  • Chemotherapy targets the fastest growing cells in the body because cancer cells are fast-growing. Cells in the lining of the mouth and throat are also fast-growing so they are susceptible to chemotherapy which is what leads to sores.

  • Radiation releases free radicals which also attack the lining of the mouth and throat.

  • Enlivity plans to market its products directly to the care providers who are the most familiar with the problems of cancer therapy.

  • There is also growing inbound interest from care providers. Conversion is high when patients try samples. Sold via their own website.

  • By the end of 2020 Gillian hopes Enlivity will have a strategic partnership for distribution and to be launching their second product, a treatment for people who lose the ability to make saliva due to radiation therapy.

  • Gillian describes working at PureTech Health when it was a startup starting startups. The company partnered with faculty members seeking to commercialize technologies.

  • Gillian told us how exciting it was to work with Daphne Zohar, the founder of PureTech.

  • PureTech has shown a remarkable ability to define important problems to address and to bring capable resources to bear on their area of focus.

  • When Gillian went to the Broad Institute it was still managed as a department within MIT. As the Broad spun out from MIT, it needed to have its own technology transfer office which handled licenses and collaboration with strategic players such as the large pharmaceutical companies.

  • Big pharma is reducing in-house research and contracting it out to universities.

  • Watching a friend die from cancer at age 42 changed Gillian’s focus from long-term cures to what could be done in the short run to improve the lives of cancer patients.

  • Gillian did not see anyone else addressing the gap she noticed so she decided she was the person to do it.

  • Gillian’s mother was a nurse practitioner who was an early social entrepreneur creating a program for disabled children which was copied all over Jamaica. She is a model for Gillian.

  • Gillian’s husband is very supportive of her venture.

  • Gillian emphasized the importance of finding allies to support you early on because the journey is very lonely. Advice to entrepreneurs: don’t go it alone.

  • Important allies: MIT Venture Mentoring Services (VMS), co-founder, and other mentors and friends.

  • Gillian reveals that she’s a listener to the Angel Invest Boston podcast and that she has left a review on iTunes. I’m honored!