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Posted: Sep 04, 2008
Azaya licenses University of Texas nanotechnology to develop cancer treatment
(Nanowerk News) A drug delivery system the size of a millionth of a centimeter could hold the key to more effective treatments of cancerous tumors.
San Antonio researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center and homegrown biotech firm Azaya Therapeutics Inc. have teamed up to test the new technology in humans and to bring it to the market.
Azaya has just licensed the university's nanotechnology — a field that studies technology on an atomic or molecular scale — and could be testing it by early 2010 on people for whom other treatments have failed.
"We were working on this before nanotechnology was hot," said Dr. Bill Phillips, who specializes in nuclear medicine at UTHSC.
This is the first license agreement for UTHSC since the reorganization of its technology transfer work and the formation of South Texas Technology Management for UTHSC, University of Texas at San Antonio, UT-Pan American and UT-Brownsville.
University and nonprofit research organization officials in San Antonio say there is a growing recognition on the part of the scientific community that the business world can help support both innovation and the community.
Earlier this year, Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research spun off an entire department as a private enterprise called Evestra Inc. to develop drugs targeted at helping women with everything from birth control to cancer.
The Azaya deal, UTHSC President Dr. Francisco Cigarroa said, "is a win for cancer patients and a demonstration that academic research can provide local economic development."
For more than 15 years, Phillips, Ande Bao and Beth Goins, radiology professors at the medical school, have been studying the use of liposomes — essentially a membrane of fat smaller than a cell — for targeted treatment of disease.
Phillips said the radioactive particles encased in the liposomes can be delivered directly into a tumor and then naturally released to kill cancerous cells without damaging surrounding tissue. While technology has made radiation therapy more targeted, there still is damage of healthy tissue because the beam of radiation comes from outside the body and passes through healthy cells to get to the tumor.
"No one has ever taken radiation and delivered it this way as a therapy," said Mike Dwyer, CEO of Azaya. "The collateral damage of this kind of therapy is minuscule."
For that reason, he expects that the time it takes to get approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration could be shortened.
If the company can get the therapy on the market for the sickest patients in a few years, then it should take about $10 million to develop. Expanding the scope of when it is used, including in the early stages of prostate cancer, would help boost revenue in the future.
"Nano-scale liposomes deliver short-range powerful radiation where it is needed, sparing nondiseased tissue," Phillips said. "This activity is so precise that it may be possible to treat the same area over and over again."
One area where it shows much promise is in head and neck cancers, which are particularly difficult to treat because of potential harm to vital healthy tissues from conventional treatments and the inability to remove them surgically, said Dr. Randal Otto, an otolaryngology specialist at UTHSC's Cancer Therapy & Research Center.
While head and neck tumors will be the initial clinical application, good results from those studies could lead to an expansion of the study by Azaya to include breast and prostate cancer.
The licensing agreement, six months in the making, was serendipitous.
Sean Thompson was familiar with Azaya's work with effectively manufacturing liposomes and even had applied for a position with the company started by Dwyer, a former top executive with Ilex Oncology before it was acquired by Genzyme. Thompson ended up working for the University of Texas System's technology transfer office and recognized how the work of Phillips and his colleagues fit with Azaya's expertise as he was reviewing UTHSC's portfolio of more than 300 active technologies.
Azaya researchers weren't familiar with the university team's work until a paper was published this summer in the journal Clinical Cancer Research. Phillips never had published in the cancer field before.
The technology now is dubbed Azaya Liposomal Encapsulated Radiation Therapy, or ALERT. Azaya has raised $6.2 million from local investors in the last few years, Dwyer said, and will seek more to bring ALERT to market.
Dwyer said the company also has filed for state grant money from the Texas Emerging Technology Fund.
Kenneth Porter, director of the UT South Texas Technology Management office, executed the license agreement and said it is just the right combination of research and commercialization.
"There's been a ton of research and it seems like it would be magical, but there's been a problem with getting the agent, or drug, out of the liposome," Porter said of the problem solved by this technology.