Startup Companies Address Unsolved Problems
Otto Zhou, PhD, founder of the startup companies XinRay and Xintek, examines a model of a carbon nanotube that is the basis of new tumor imaging technologies
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - In their recent book, Engines of Innovation, UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp, PhD, and Entrepreneur-in-Residence Buck Goldstein make the case for the pivotal role of research universities as agents of societal change – confronting global challenges that can’t or aren’t being addressed by government or industry.
At UNC Lineberger, that challenge resonates with our physicians and scientists, who work to unravel the mysteries of cancer and related health problems. The drive to get great ideas from the lab to the patient often involves a shift from the mind to the marketplace – resulting in entrepreneurial approaches to commercializing new ideas in diagnostic technology and therapies with tremendous potential to help cancer patients, while simultaneously boosting North Carolina’s knowledge economy.
These companies range from early stage startups to more mature organizations, like Liquidia Technologies (www.liquidia.com), founded by Joe DeSimone, PhD, UNC Lineberger Member and Chancellor’s Eminent Professor of Chemistry at UNC, that already have moved promising therapies into early stage clinical trials.
With more than 20 active startups involving UNC Lineberger members in existence, and more likely to come as a result of new faculty and new research made possible through the University Cancer Research Fund, we have space to showcase just a few examples of some of the early-stage companies creating powerful entrepreneurial momentum with the potential to benefit thousands in North Carolina and worldwide.
XinRay and Xintek – tiny inventions with big results
A tiny invention called a carbon nanotube field emitter, perfected by UNC physicist Otto Zhou, PhD, is well on the way toward showing big promise for new technologies that can help cancer patients and others. Xintek, a UNC spin-off, seeks to commercialize carbon nanotube electron field emission technologies developed at UNC into applications ranging from x-ray generation to information display.
One new system, which the companies and researchers at UNC are working collaboratively with an outside partner to develop, promises better spatial resolution and a faster scanning speed compared to current technologies for the detection of breast tumors.
A related company, XinRay Systems, LLC, was formed about three years ago as a joint venture between Siemens Medical and Xintek. Based in the Research Triangle Park, the company is developing a carbon nanotube-based x-ray technology for both medical and homeland security applications. One very promising application is image guided radiation therapy, which provides high-quality 3D images.
Currently undergoing testing in Sha Chang, PhD’s, lab in the Department of Radiation Oncology, the new imaging technology enables even more precise targeting of radiation treatment to pinpoint cancer cells. The preliminary results of device testing, published last year, was awarded the best paper in medical physics in 2009 and the team also received a major award from the American Association of Physics in Medicine.
“We’ve generated a lot of excitement among people who see broad applications for the technology in clinical medicine,” says Zhou.
G-Zero Therapeutics – blocking treatment side-effects
G-Zero Therapeutics is not as far along the path to commercialization, but is making strides in moving solutions to key cancer treatment problems forward. With operations in Research Triangle Park, the company is working on a way to block the negative side effects of radiation and cancer chemotherapy.
The company was founded in 2008 by UNC LCCC member Ned Sharpless, MD, along with Kwok-Kin Wong, MD, PhD, (Harvard Medical School) and CEO John Chant, PhD, (formerly of Genetech) to capitalize on discoveries made and patented by Sharpless’ lab at the University of North Carolina, and subsequently licensed to G-Zero.
Many of the side effects of common cancer treatments are due to damage to bone marrow. Often, bone marrow damage limits a patient’s ability to receive cancer therapy, resulting in reduced treatment intensity which in turn translates into lower cancer cure rates. The company has discovered a treatment, which can be taken orally, that reduces bone marrow damage from cancer therapies, allowing for the use of higher and more sustained chemotherapy dosing, leading to higher cure rates in preclinical models.
“The two key applications are in cancer treatment and radiological disaster. We have shown that our treatment strategy is effective, even when administered up to 20 hours after exposure to a DNA damaging event such as radiation,” says Sharpless, who is also UNC Lineberger’s Associate Director for Translational Research.
The research projects leading to discoveries licensed by G-Zero were in part supported by the University Cancer Research Fund. The company also has benefited from working with Carolina KickStart, a program developed by the NCTraCS Institute to help translate lab findings into commercially-viable enterprises, Sharpless notes. The company has been able to leverage this extensive university support to obtain more than $1.5M of government and private funding, with which G-Zero employs several RTP scientists, chemists and other support personnel.
Enci, Inc. – starving the hungry tumor
An early-stage startup powered by research discoveries of UNC Lineberger members comes out of a decade-long collaboration between Cam Patterson, MD, and Nancy DeMore, MD. What do a cardiologist and a surgical oncologist have in common that applies to cancer treatment? Blood vessels.
One of the reasons that tumors are able to grow rapidly is because they create their own network of blood vessels. If the creation of those vessels can be blocked at a cellular level by a drug, the tumor can be ‘starved’ for the blood it needs to continue rapid growth. The drug bevacizumab is effective in many tumors and serves as proof of concept for the drugs that Enci’s founders hope to develop, according to DeMore, who is an associate professor in the division of surgical oncology. However, some tumors are resistant to bevacizumab and don’t respond.
The partners developed a technique for microdissection of blood vessels from tumor tissues that allows key proteins to be identified and isolated – resulting in numerous targets for drug discovery.
One of those proteins, SFRP2, is overexpressed in tumor tissue and the team’s laboratory studies have found that silencing it keeps angiosarcoma – a lethal form of cancer with few treatments – from forming blood vessels. SFRP2 also looks like a promising target for some breast tumors and other forms of cancer.
“We formed Enci to capitalize on these findings and try to move them into the preclinical and clinical studies needed for FDA approval,” said Patterson, who is chief of the division of cardiology and director of UNC’s McAllister Heart Institute. The team is working with Carolina Kickstart. “The funding we’ve received from UCRF and Carolina Kickstart has helped us move several steps toward our goal of conducting Phase I trials in patients,” said Patterson.
Demore adds, “The landscape has changed in terms of pharmaceutical development. Large companies don’t want to get involved until after Phase I or Phase II trials are complete. It is costly to complete these studies and we felt that we needed to form Enci and raise the funds for the work that needs to be done to close this gap.” The original study looking at the mechanism of SFRP2 in blood vessel formation was funded by a UCRF innovation award and a UCRF core facility pilot project funded the preclinical studies confirming that SFRP2 would work outside of cell culture.
UNC Lineberger members are involved in the following startup companies:
AlphaVax, Inc. – Robert E. Johnston, PhD
Asklêpios BioPharmaceutical, Inc. – Richard J. Samulski, PhD
Cell Microsystems – Nancy Albritton, PhD, Christopher Sims, PhD,* Yuli Wang, PhD*
Dyzen, Inc. – Cam Patterson, MD, Rob Lineberger,* Holly McDonough, PhD*
Enci Therapeutics, Inc. – Cam Patterson, MD, and Nancy DeMore, MD
Epizyme – Yi Zhang, PhD
Ercole Biotech (now part of AVI Biotech) – Ryszard Kole, PhD
Exigent Pharmaceuticals – Matthew Redinbo, PhD
G-Zero – Norman E. Sharpless, MD
Invitrox, Inc. – Don Gabriel, MD
Liquidia Technologies – Joseph Desimone, PhD
MiCell, Inc – Joseph Desimone, PhD
MiCell Integrated Systems (MIS) – Joseph Desimone, PhD
Morphomics – Edward Cheney, PhD, and Joseph Pizer, PhD*
NanoManipulator – Otto Zhou, PhD (and others)
Novolipid – Michael Hackett* and Moo Cho, PhD
Qualiber – Leaf Huang, PhD
TheraLogics – Albert Baldwin, PhD
Viamet Pharmaceuticals – Holden Thorp, PhD
XinRay – Otto Zhou, PhD
Xintek – Otto Zhou, PhD
*Not members of UNC Lineberger