Tin Tin Su, a University of Colorado Boulder professor who serves as chief science officer for technology-transfer company SuviCa Inc., works on a drug to battle head and neck cancer. Glenn Asakawa / University of Colorado

SuviCa uses undergrads to test cancer drug on the fly

Rack one up for the fruit flies — and the concept of involving undergrads in front-line research, as well.

Both the flies and the students who work with them were instrumental in bringing Boulder biotechnology company SuviCa Inc. roughly $1.5 million in federal funding to develop a treatment for head and neck cancer last fall. The University of Colorado Boulder technology transfer company, headed by Tin Tin Su, its chief science officer and a CU professor, has a drug candidate known now as SVC112 that helps prevent regrowth of cancerous cells following radiation therapy.

While at least a couple years away from any human testing, Su said the money will help the fledgling company develop the drug as far as financially feasible. Su said the Phase II Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract from the National Cancer Institute may help get the drug to the beginning of human testing, although certainly other funding would be necessary at that point.

“We would like to keep it as long as possible,” said Su about the company’s first drug candidate. “We still have a lot of work in proof of concept in the lab and in animal models, and we’re hoping to raise money to get there.

“If we get appropriate funding, and the data looks good, I would say about two years (until the drug could begin to be tested on people). That’s an educated guess.”

SVC112 is a small molecule that targets ribosomes, which create proteins inside of cells. Essentially, the researchers hope to inhibit cancerous cells that have been treated by radiation from replicating themselves, a far too common occurrence after radiation treatment.

The drug could have more far-ranging application, as Su said working on neck and head (not brain) cancer was more of a means to an end, as SVC112 and other drug candidates at SuviCa may have more extensive application.

“You don’t hear a lot about it (neck and head cancer) and, because it’s often neglected, patients have greater needs for a new therapy,” Su said. “The specificity (of the cancer) comes less from the drug” and more from a business model suggested by regulatory paths.

The use of fruit flies — or Drosophila melanogaster for those in the know — in medical research is not new, but certainly Su’s approach in bringing in undergraduates to this first phase of potential drug identification is raising some eyebrows.

“That is our first line of attack, and the reason is they (fruit flies) share about 70 percent disease-relevant genes with us,” she said. “They are very easy to manipulate; we can change genes in fruit flies almost at will. It’s cheap and fast.”

Undergraduate evaluation of the fruit fly screening was very much a part of identifying SVC112, and the courses designed by Su for her students have attracted funding by the Howard Hughes Institute to forward the curriculum to reach a larger student population at CU.

“It’s getting a lot of attention,” Su said. “Giving the students hands-on experience in doing front-line research really gives them better perspective than traditional lab work.”

The idea also was crucial in putting together a rather unique and talented SuviCa team, as well. CEO Judy Hemberger, who was co-founder and chief operating officer of Pharmion Corp. prior to its sale to Celgene for $2.9 billion, said the unique screening technique, and its advantages in inexpensively putting drug candidates into the pipeline, initially drew her to the company.

“I’ve probably served on 19 different boards,” said Hemberger, who has more than 30 years of experience in the pharmaceutical industry, with expertise including clinical development, global regulatory and early commercialization. “When I saw what Tin Tin’s techniques offered, I was on board.”

Today, Hemberger points to a uniquely integrated team of researchers and managers well versed in early drug development as the feature that really makes SuviCa, founded in 2010, really hum.

For instance, Bert Pronk, SuviCa’s vice president for preclinical development who has more than 25 years’ of experience in research and drug development for various oncology indications in academic and industry environments, also was instrumental in developing SVC112. The SuviCa team also includes clinicians and scientists at CU-Boulder, the University of Colorado Cancer Center, CU Anschutz Medical Campus and Colorado State University, several of whom have published a Phase I clinical study (dosage response) on a similar drug inhibiting post-radiation cancer cell growth.

“We’ve always been able to use money very, very effectively,” Hemberger said. “That’s one of the things that brings this team together: the desire to create low-cost, effective cancer treatments.”

Su’s research in her lab at CU-Boulder also may have revealed something many cancer specialists were not aware of, a communication between dying cells and their nearby counterparts. “We still don’t understand how they work,” she said, “but they (appear to) send signals to their neighbors, telling them not to die.”

But Su is hopeful that the current screening process matched with top-end researchers may have a solution.

“We’re building a so-called pipeline,”

she said. “We have other new entrants

at different states and are tweaking

them now.”