Bringing Breast Cancer Technologies to Market

Nancy Parrish and Ashley DeVine
Female scientist in laboratory

CCR researcher and Breast Cancer Startup Challenge inventor Nadya Tarasova, Ph.D.

CCR research is recognized in novel competition to encourage the commercialization of breast cancer inventions.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in CCR Connections (Volume 8, No. 1). The Breast Cancer Startup Challenge was named one of six finalists in the HHS Innovates Award Competition, and was one of three finalists recognized by HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell and Deputy Secretary Bill Corr. For more information on the Challenge, see previous article on the Poster website. 

Start-up companies are instrumental in bringing the fruits of scientific research to market. Recognizing an opportunity to bring entrepreneurial minds to bear on the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer, the Avon Foundation for Women partnered with NCI and the Center for Advancing Innovation to launch the Breast Cancer Startup Challenge. The Challenge has brought together teams of university students and entrepreneurs to create strategic business plans to develop and commercialize patented technologies. Nine of the 10 inventions chosen in the competition were developed by scientists at NCI: five by CCR scientists and two by scientists formerly with CCR.

“NCI has always had a strong interest in fostering young investigators, and the fact that this challenge pairs each student team with entrepreneur-mentors to assist in the development of the business plans is another example of how we can bring new ideas and energy to cancer research,” said Douglas Lowy, M.D., Deputy Director of NCI and Chief of CCR’s Laboratory of Cellular Oncology.

The chosen technologies include cancer diagnostics, therapeutics, prognostics, one medical device, one vaccine, one delivery system, and one health IT system. The 10 winning teams will each be encouraged to launch start-up companies to develop the technologies.

One of the winning teams, based at Rutgers University in N.J., has formed a company called OncoLinx to push forward research into a class of cytotoxins that boost the effectiveness of antitumor agents. Developed by Nadya Tarasova, Ph.D., Head of the Synthetic Biologics and Drug Discovery Facility in CCR’s Cancer and Inflammation Program, the cytotoxins are easy to synthesize, stable in circulation, and are cell permeable. In an unpublished study, Tarasova and her colleagues discovered that when one of the cytotoxins was conjugated to the antibody Herceptin, the combined therapy killed 98 percent of cancer cells in vitro compared to 46 percent of cells killed by the antibody alone. An important step for the Rutgers team will be demonstrating the cytotoxins’ safety and effectiveness in preclinical studies. Key to this will be developing a method for transporting the cytotoxin directly to diseased cells within patients’ bodies, while avoiding surrounding healthy cells.

For any given cancer type, a number of treatment options exist. A major challenge for clinicians is determining which option is best for their patient without having to test them one by one. To address this issue, Stephen Hewitt, M.D., Ph.D., Staff Clinician in CCR’s Laboratory of Pathology, devised a tissue assay for up to four protein biomarkers. The presence or absence of the various biomarkers can indicate the optimal therapy for a patient and predict that patient’s survival rate for a given treatment. “The invention came out of a single study where we measured multiple biomarkers looking for a correlation between biomarker and drug response,” said Hewitt. “None of the biomarkers alone predicted response, but in ratios, based on the pathway interactions, they did.” A team of students at McGill University in Montreal has formed a company called ProVivoX that plans to develop a test based on Hewitt’s biomarker research that can predict breast cancer relapse. The team hopes to begin clinical trials by 2015.

Another particularly promising cancer therapy invented at CCR helps patients’ immune systems target tumors more effectively. Dennis Klinman, M.D., Ph.D., Senior Investigator in CCR’s Laboratory of Experimental Immunology, discovered a method for customizing synthetic immune system stimulators called CpG oligonucleotides that interact with immune cells that express Toll-like receptor 9 and thus drive an innate immune response. When linked to an apoptotic tumor cell vaccine derived from the patients’ own tumor biopsies, the oligonucleotide-vaccine conjugates reduce tumor size, as well as prevent cancer recurrence and metastasis in mice. A team from Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., plans to apply CpG oligonucleotides to triple-negative breast cancer. They also hope to expand their treatment, which is dubbed TheraProVax, to other cancer types.

As for Klinman, he appreciates the chance to see his research, as well as that of his colleagues, brought out of the lab and into the hands of doctors. “The Breast Cancer Startup Challenge provides a wonderful opportunity to focus on inventions for the treatment of cancer and improves the likelihood that they will find clinical application,” he said.

CCR Inventions and Business Plan Winners*

Diagnostic from Biopsies with Software Analysis
Category: Diagnostics/Health IT
Lead Inventor: Tom Misteli, Ph.D., CCR
Winner: University of Cambridge

Immunotherapy Using Modified Self Tumor Cells
Category: Therapeutic
Lead Inventor: Dennis Klinman, M.D., Ph.D., CCR
Winner: Washington University in Saint Louis

Human Monoclonal Antibody-Based Cancer Therapies
Category: Therapeutic, Diagnostic
Lead Inventor: Mitchell Ho, Ph.D., CCR
Winner: Stanford University

Immunotherapy Using Granulysin Activated Monocytes
Category: Therapeutic
Lead Inventor: Alan Krensky, M.D., Northwestern University (formerly with CCR)
Winner: Northwestern University

Anticancer Toxin
Category: Therapeutic
Lead Inventor: Nadya Tarasova, Ph.D., CCR
Winner: Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Genomic-Based Diagnostic Assay
Category: Diagnostics and Prognostic
Lead Inventor: Steven Libutti, M.D., Albert Einstein College of Medicine (formerly with CCR)
Winner: University of California, Berkeley

Tissue-Based Diagnostic Assay
Category: Diagnostic
Lead Inventor: Stephen Hewitt, M.D., Ph.D., CCR
Winner: McGill University

*This listing does not constitute CCR/NCI’s endorsement of the companies or potential products, and does not guarantee a grant of license for any federally owned technology.

To learn more about the Challenge, please visit