UA startup to develop tumor-starving cancer treatment

Colorful image of a plasma membrane of a cell with associated proteins

Story by Paul Tumarkin, Tech Launch Arizona

University of Arizona startup company Synactix Pharmaceuticals Inc. has licensed a novel cancer treatment technology developed through research at the UA College of Pharmacy.

The agreement comes on the heels of other recent technology startups out of the UA, including SinfoníaRx (College of Pharmacy), Anivax (College of Agriculture and Life Sciences) and Metropia (College of Engineering).

Asian man with short dark hair and glassesUnder the leadership of Hong-yu Li, company president and an associate professor in the College of Pharmacy, and Brendan Frett, vice president, a 2014 graduate of the college and a postdoctoral researcher in Li’s lab, the company is forming its management team and raising funds.

To protect the invention and start the new company, Li and Frett worked with Tech Launch Arizona's assistant director of biomedical and life sciences licensing, Rakhi Gibbons, and the entire team at TLA, the office of the UA that commercializes inventions emanating from research to create social and economic impact.

"This is a great example of the cutting-edge research taking place at the UA," Gibbons says. "We’re excited to have the opportunity to work with such individuals that endeavor to bring new treatments to patients."

Arising out of studies focusing on highly targeted treatments, Synactix has zeroed in on a dual kinase inhibitor that blocks two factors involved in cancer survival: oncogene addiction and vascular growth. The inhibitor is able to simultaneously block the RET proto-oncogene and the VEGF receptor. When these signaling proteins are blocked, tumor growth and tumor vascularization are quickly halted.

Smiling white man with dark hair and high foreheadIn essence, the drug simultaneously starves and obstructs tumor growth by preventing blood vessel formation and oncogene signaling.

"We are very excited to be one step closer to providing this treatment to the patient in need," Li says. "We still have a formidable push to reach our research goals, and the UA has provided resources necessary to streamline development."

For Frett, the experience has served as a useful course in the business of pharmaceuticals.

"As I was finishing up my Ph.D., I was in the process of starting Synactix," he says. "I have learned that science and business are very different but complementary concepts, and it’s crucial to identify the interdependence between the two. We have a great opportunity to enhance treatments for human disease, and we are excited and enthusiastic for what the future holds."

"The College of Pharmacy has a long history of entrepreneurial and spinoff companies, including Cylene, Niadyne and, of course, our highly successful SinfoníaRx," says J. Lyle Bootman, dean of the college. "This newest firm is another example of the strength of our faculty, not only as teachers and researchers but as innovators dedicated to advancing science and technology to directly benefit patients. This is great example of how a university stimulates the economy in the state and the local region."

The pathways of Synactix’s treatment play a key role in medullary thyroid cancer, which is an orphan disease — one that provides little incentive for the pharmaceutical industry because of a low market potential. The orphan indication will be used initially as an advantage to show safety and efficacy in clinical trials, with the intent to expand to other indications as positive results develop. 

The treatment provides advantages over current therapies by targeting multiple, cooperating pathways. The drug was designed using medicinal chemistry polypharmacology, or MCP, a concept to engineer drugs capable of simultaneously targeting multiple causes of a human disease.

This year, Synactix submitted an STTR grant for $299,976 to continue its research and develop its product. The grant has been selected for probable funding by the National Cancer Institute and is currently under intent to award, putting Synactix in a lineup of UA Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer collaborations linked to TLA’s SBIR/STTR Tech House, an initiative supported by a partnership with the Tucson community, designed to maximize the success of SBIR/STTR funding across the southern Arizona region.

The company is in negotiations with investors to help fund an FDA Investigational New Drug package to complete its IND in the United States and open channels to international markets.

Photos:
1. Plasma membrane of a cell with associated proteins (Credit: Luk Cox)
2. Hong-yu Li
3. Brendan Frett

 

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