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Cancer-detection nets entrepreneurial award

Ban-An Khaw, a pharmaceutical sciences professor in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences, was recently named a finalist for this year’s MassChallenge, an annual $1M global startup competition and accelerator program for entrepreneurs.

The award will help Khaw further the research behind a commercial venture established in 2009 with Joel Berniac, MBA’05, the president, co-founder and chief operating officer of Akrivis Technologies.

Akrivis Technologies aims to improve cancer detection and drug delivery through a novel mechanism Khaw originally developed to identify cardiac cell death, in which a polymer decorated with any kind of molecular entity — from radioactive markers to cancer drugs — is delivered directly to an area of interest.

Unique molecular tags, or antigens, pepper the surface of every living cell. Some tell the immune system not to attack; others distinguish one cell type from another. Tumor cells present antigens that are unique to cancer, providing the opportunity for targeted drug delivery and early cancer detection.

Monoclonal antibodies specifically designed to recognize tumor antigens are tagged with radioactive markers and injected into the bloodstream where they seek out and stick to tumor cells. The radioactive markers generate a signal highlighting the tumor’s location.

But most techniques are still limited in their ability to identify small tumors. In experimental tests with mice, Khaw explained, tumors need to comprise about six percent of the total body mass before they become visible. For humans, this directly translates into kilogram-sized tumors, which don’t require special diagnostic methods beyond the naked eye.

“We want to be able to see milligram amounts before the lesion becomes large enough to send out metastatic cancer cells,” said Khaw, whose novel mechanism amplifies the signal generated by these techniques.

Instead of tagging antibodies with a single radioactive marker, Khaw tags them with a receptor–antibody complex. He then introduces what he calls “the Christmas tree”: a polymer decorated with dozens of markers.

The method has already enabled a one million-fold improvement over traditional monoclonal antibody cell imaging techniques and Khaw expects to improve that even further, down to the level of single cells in a drop of blood.

“Most people don’t want very sensitive detection,” he said, because current treatment methods wouldn’t be able to address such low levels of cancer. “But,” he added, “we can sacrifice sensitivity for speed.”

The method also has the potential to significantly improve drug delivery and reduce the cellular toxicity associated with chemotherapy. Traditional drugs show only slight preferences for cancer cells and must be introduced into the body in large amounts to have any effect, which causes the death of healthy cells alongside cancerous ones.

If he swaps the radioactive markers with cancer drug molecules, Khaw suddenly has a targeted and highly concentrated therapy. What’s more, “It doesn’t kill cells until it gets inside them,” he said. A natural process of the cell breaks down the polymer, freeing the drug molecules to do their job. When the entity is floating around in the blood stream, however, it has no toxic properties.

“I would like to see something that I have done in my lifetime be helpful to people,” said Khaw. MassChallenge provides expert entrepreneurial mentoring and access to funding and media. With this help, Khaw hopes that Akrivis will achieve the visibility required to bring his technology to the place it matters most: the clinic.