Highlights //

New Otago biotech startup targets cancer

Amaroq Therapeutics, a new biotech startup company with the goal of developing targeted drugs for cancer, has been awarded significant investment funds in 2021.



The team behind Amaroq Therapeutics- back row, (L-R): Ginny Niemi, MWC Associate Investigators Dr Sarah Diermeier and Dr Debina Sarkar, and Jolyn Chia. Front row, (L-R): Megan O’Malley, Kaitlyn Tippett, Kathleen Lucere. Image courtesy of Dr Sarah Diermeier


Dr Sarah Diermeier, a Lecturer at the University of Otago and an MWC associate investigator, founded Amaroq Therapeutics in 2021 and is currently the Chief Scientific Officer. With the assistance of Otago Innovation, Amaroq Therapeutics has been awarded $14 million in investment funding – the largest investment ever secured by Otago Innovation. This investment was backed by Brandon Capital and supported by NZ Innovation Booster and Cure Kids Ventures.

The early research from Dr Diermeier’s lab that contributed to this recent award discovered that long non-coding RNAs (lncRNAs) are likely a promising target for therapeutic intervention in cancers, an area that has never been previously explored in the clinic. LncRNAs are often referred to as “dark matter” of the genome and, unlike messenger RNAs, do not code for proteins. Instead, lncRNAs have recently been discovered to carry out important regulatory functions in cells, and thus have generated significant research interest in the international scientific community.

“Through exploring patient data, our research has shown that specific lncRNA molecules are highly expressed in cancer cells but not normal healthy cells. Removing these lncRNA molecules from cancer cells can slow down the process of the cells dividing. This gives us real hope that lncRNA molecules could hold the key for treating many forms of common cancer,” explains Dr Diermeier.

Financial support from the MWC was instrumental in the progression from idea to startup. “MWC allowed us to get very early-stage funding when we had little more than an exciting new idea,” explains Dr Diermeier. “MWC seed funding enabled the rapid development of a new technology and led to new IP, which turned out to be important assets when we raised our Venture Capital round to launch Amaroq”.

With their recent investment, Amaroq Therapeutics aims to develop their first lead drug that will precisely target cancerous cells expressing lncRNAs identified by Dr Diermeier’s lab, to phase I clinical trials within the next two years. Currently, the initial mission of Amaroq Therapeutics is to develop drugs that target triple-negative breast cancer, colorectal and liver cancers, which have limited targeted treatment options presently and represent a high unmet clinical need in New Zealand. Additionally, Amaroq aims to devote a significant portion of their efforts to overcoming the issue of chemoresistance, by identifying targets that may be able to re-sensitize cancer cells, performing synthetic lethality screens, and testing synergistic effects of lncRNA-targeting drugs with the current standard of care.

Moving forward, the team envisions that the therapeutic platforms being developed will eventually be able to be repurposed to target many other types of cancers.   "We hope that our new treatments will significantly improve survival rates for cancer patients and are able to address issues such as resistance to chemotherapeutics…. That is my life goal – to have a drug in the clinic that has a positive impact on patient survival and wellbeing," says Dr Diermeier.