UW Today

September 19, 2016

UW wins national nanotechnology startup challenge for breast cancer treatment

News and Information

A sunny day at the University of Washington Seattle campus, silhouette of George Washington statue.

A sunny day at the University of Washington Seattle campus, silhouette of George Washington statue.Katherine B. Turner

Most medical advancements of modern life started in the laboratory. Some, like the polio vaccine, sprouted from years of research directed toward combating a specific disease. Other breakthroughs, like penicillin, were discoveries in “basic” research later shown to have a clinical benefit. But translating a discovery into a clinical treatment can take years — though penicillin was first isolated in 1928, it took about 15 years to fully realize its clinical potential and develop a pipeline for mass production.

Researchers at the University of Washington are among the winners of a startup challenge to shorten the transition time from lab bench to patient. The team, including members of professor Suzie Pun‘s research group in the UW Department of Bioengineering, was selected based on its proposal and business plan to develop a targeted drug delivery system for breast cancer. As one of 10 teams winning the National Cancer Institute’s Nanotech Startup Challenge, the group will receive assistance and support from NCI and other partners in the often daunting transition into the business world of drug development.

Pun credits CoMotion, the UW’s hub for innovation and spinoffs, for facilitating their entry into the challenge.

CoMotion connected Pun and UW bioengineering graduate student Chayanon Ngambenjawong with Elizabeth Cho-Fertikh, a scientist and founder of Washington, D.C.-based ECF Biosolutions, and together they drafted a business proposal for a drug delivery system targeting a specific population of tumor-promoting cells present in most solid cancers.

Their team proposal relied on years of research into these tumor-promoting cells, known as tumor-associated macrophages or TAMs. When this proposal passed the first hurdle in the startup challenge, they then developed a business plan and pitched it to a panel of experts and judges. As a winner of this second and final round in the competition, Pun and partners will be ushered through a multistep process of incorporating a company, meeting investors and launching their startup.

Pun and her team believe targeting TAMs may help improve the effectiveness of chemotherapy and other anticancer drugs.

“TAMs are a specific type of cell found within tumors, and past research indicates that they can interfere with the body’s own antitumor activity and clinical treatments,” said Pun. “So if you can find a way to specifically target and eliminate TAMs, this could help boost the efficacy of cancer treatments.”

Pun’s group previously discovered a short peptide sequence displayed on the surface of TAMs in mouse tumors. Human TAMs should contain a similar sequence, and the UW team proposes to exploit this sequence as the basis for a novel drug delivery system against TAMs in breast cancer. But that could just be the beginning.

“TAMs play an important role in almost any type of major cancer,” said Pun. “So, our hope is that the lessons we learn in developing this treatment against breast cancer TAMs can be applied to other types of tumors.”

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For more information, contact Pun at spun@uw.edu.

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