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A new tool against cancer

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2017 - Autumn


When two experts in their field get together and combine their labs, incredible things happen.

When two experts in their fields get together and combine their labs, incredible things happen. W. Mark Saltzman, Ph.D., the Goizueta Foundation Professor of Biomedical and Chemical Engineering, and his team designed “sticky particles”: nanoparticles that were bioadhesive and stuck to the surface of the skin. Combining this discovery with the expertise of Michael Girardi, M.D. ’92, HS ’97, FW ’97, professor of dermatology, the two used those sticky properties to create a sunscreen that blocks any toxins in the sunscreen from soaking through the skin and entering the bloodstream.

Then they realized that they could take the technology further. “We discovered that this adhesive property that adheres the nanoparticles to the skin also makes them attractive to tumor cells,” says Saltzman. Based on Saltzman’s previous success with a similar method to treat models of ovarian and other types of cancer, the team created a system that could adhere chemotherapeutic agents to tumors to treat skin cancer. While the team is still figuring out why these particles are attracted to tumor cells, the potential is obvious.

As the collaboration continues, so do the discoveries: “We can keep expanding the technology in the lab,” says Girardi, “and see what else it can be used for.” But there are limits to what even super labs like Saltzman’s and Girardi’s can do. “You can’t, in a Yale lab, start developing a product,” Girardi notes.

Now, a new grant is poised to do just that and help them take their double discovery from the lab into the marketplace. With funding from the Blavatnik Family Foundation, Girardi and Saltzman seek to close the gap between the technology they have developed in the lab and the commercial world, where sunscreen can be sold to consumers and treatment can reach cancer patients via prescription.

The purpose of the grant, which is in the range of $100,000 to $300,000, is to give Girardi and Saltzman the resources to bring their technology to the manufacturing stage, a critical step in getting it ultimately to consumers and patients. The demonstration of manufacturing at a larger scale will open the door to licensing the technology or to beginning a start-up for advancing both applications of the technology to market.

While Girardi and Saltzman can develop these products in the lab at a small scale, “there are questions surrounding how to make this cost-effective, and do it at a large scale, so that’s a very important step to bring this technology to the real world,” says Girardi. Through the grant, they will engage a contract research organization to help them prepare to scale up the technology and perform preclinical testing to answer such crucial questions for potential investors as quantifiable efficacy and levels of toxicity. There is a great deal of overlap, Girardi says, between how the sunscreen and skin cancer treatment would be developed, scaled up, and manufactured, but there are some fundamental differences. “There are different levels of tolerable toxicity and sterility in preparation in each of those, not to mention the active ingredients are different,” Girardi says.

“It is difficult to translate research work into a commercial venture,” says Saltzman. “Venture capitalists or commercial partners want to see certain kinds of development results that are difficult for academic labs to accomplish. … The goal of the Blavatnik Family Foundation is to provide dollars that are explicitly for this purpose.”

As they prepare to engage with industry, Girardi and Saltzman continue to hone the technology they have developed. The sunscreen was first developed with the agent padimate O, which blocks only the sun’s UVB rays. The new version now uses a combination of agents to achieve broad-spectrum coverage, to block not only UVB rays, but harmful UVA rays as well. The team is working on even further uses for the platform. “One of the most exciting aspects of a platform technology is the capacity to expand it in other directions,” Girardi says.

Both researchers say the disparate nature of their backgrounds makes such a breakthrough possible. “One of the things that makes it impactful is that our areas of expertise are so different, but we communicate well together,” says Saltzman, “so we can do things that neither of us could easily do alone.”

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