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‘Protocell’ cancer therapy gains potent backer

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

Dr. Mitchell H. Gold, a nationally recognized pioneer in emerging cancer-fighting therapies, is throwing his weight behind a new, homegrown New Mexico technology that he believes could be a “game changer” in the battle against cancer.

The doctor, who helped usher in a new therapy for prostate cancer in 2010, is now working with researchers from the University of New Mexico and Sandia National Laboratories to commercialize a novel drug-delivery system that could make chemotherapy more effective while potentially eliminating toxic side effects.

The technology, known as the “protocell,” uses man-made nanoparticles to inject huge doses of cancer-killing drugs directly into the heart of tumors without harming healthy tissue.

GOLD: New therapy could be a "game changer"

GOLD: New therapy could be a “game changer”

Gold’s biotech investment firm, Alpine Biosciences, has acquired an option to license the protocell technology. It’s now setting up a local office to begin the commercialization process, and it’s planning a funding drive to raise up to $3 million in venture capital in the next six months.

“This is still early technology, but it’s so unique in its capabilities that I believe it will be a game changer for the entire field of oncology,” Gold told the Journal .

Gold said getting the technology to market likely will require at least a decade more of research and development, including extensive animal studies and lengthy clinical human trials to obtain U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval. And to do that, Alpine Biosciences will need to raise hundreds of millions of dollars.

“It typically takes 10 to 12 years and about $750 million to get a new drug to market,” Gold said. “It’s a long, laborious, risky process.”

But UNM and Sandia representatives said Gold’s experience and prestige in the biotechnology industry offer a major leg up in overcoming those hurdles.

“Gold has a tremendous track record in raising substantial amounts of capital in the past, and he has direct experience related to developing cancer therapies,” said Lisa Kuuttila, president and CEO of the Science and

KUUTTILA: Science and Technology Corp. CEO

KUUTTILA: Science and Technology Corp. CEO

Technology Corp., UNM’s tech-transfer office.

Gold previously was president and CEO of Dendreon Corp., which raised more than $2 billion to take its prostate cancer drug Provenge to market in 2010. He co-founded that company, helped take it public, and guided it through the FDA approval process.

“To play in the biotechnology industry you need real entrepreneurial capability,” said Sandia researcher and UNM professor Jeff Brinker, who helped create the protocell technology. “It costs a lot of money, so having someone with a proven track record who has already developed a product in the therapeutics world is critical for us to move forward.”

Brinker and Dr. Cheryl Willman, UNM’s Cancer Center director, have worked together on the protocell technology for about four years. Brinker is a materials scientist who built the technology with a team of researchers at UNM’s Center for Biomedical Engineering. Willman has conducted laboratory tests on mice.

WILLMAN: Director of UNM's Cancer Center

WILLMAN: Director of UNM’s Cancer Center

The protocell consists of porous nanoparticles that are covered with a protective coating similar to the membranes that surround live cells, plus a protein that allows them to bind specifically with cancer cells.

The goal is to load the nanoparticles with cancer-killing drugs and inject them into the bloodstream, where they then would drift harmlessly until binding with cancer cells to release their cargo.

In lab studies, the nanoparticles have proven far more robust than similar technology created at other research institutions, making them less likely to break down in the bloodstream and cause damage to healthy tissue, Brinker said.

Moreover, the nanoparticle pores are large enough to fill them with a variety of drugs at high concentrations, allowing doctors to deliver tailor-made drug cocktails that target specific cancers with great potency.

To date, UNM has received $2.25 million from the National Cancer Institute and $1.5 million from the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. But researchers are counting on Alpine Biosciences to raise funds for future development.

“The challenge now is to scale up to produce massive amounts of highly characterized, targeted nanoparticles for testing in more animals and then in humans,” Willman said. “That will require a lot of funding that would be virtually impossible for UNM to do on its own.”

Gold said the protocell technology is promising enough to attract broad industry attention.

“I’ve worked with some of the best cancer centers in the world, but I’m blown away by the quality of the science going on here. There are more than 100 nanoparticles under development out there today, but I’ve seen nothing like the protocell, which allows you to deliver multiple cargo payloads in a highly targeted fashion,” Gold said.

“If protocells can achieve what I believe they can, then the accomplishment will be much greater than anything we achieved at Dendreon.”

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