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UNM creates new melanoma therapy

bioscienceALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A promising new method to diagnose and treat melanoma is a step closer to market following a licensing agreement between an Albuquerque startup and the University of New Mexico.

SolaranRX Inc. has closed on an exclusive option to license the technology, which was developed by Dr. Yubin Miao, associate professor at UNM’s pharmaceutical sciences and dermatology departments.

The technology is based on a peptide that binds to melanoma cells. Doctors can load it up with imaging and therapeutic radionuclides to assess the spread of the melanoma, and then target the tumors for treatment, said Stuart Rose, co-founder of the company and founder of the BioScience Center in Uptown, where SolaranRX is based.

“It’s a peptide that attaches only to melanoma cells,” Rose said. “You inject it with the equivalent of a light bulb attached to it to illuminate the tumor areas, and then you do a body scan to see where the cancer is and assess if it has expanded beyond the skin. The peptide is then re-injected with radioactive pharmaceuticals to specifically kill the melanoma cells without killing neighboring cells.”

Melanoma is one of the most deadly forms of skin cancer. It accounts for only about 2 percent of all skin cancer cases, but it accounts for the majority of deaths. Once it spreads, Melanoma has a 90 percent mortality rate over five years.

About one million people in the U.S. now have the disease. The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2014 alone, 76,000 people will be diagnosed with melanoma, and 9,700 will die.

The cancer is particularly common in the U.S. Southwest, because of the region’s high elevation and abundance of sun radiation on the skin, said Lisa Kuuttila, president and CEO of the Science and Technology Corp., UNM’s tech-transfer office.

“This technology has potential for an efficient and effective way to treat a disease that is deadly if not caught in its early stages,” Kuuttila said. “SolaranRX’s management team has a wealth of experience bringing promising technologies to patients. We will strongly support their commercialization efforts.”

The company is now raising $3 million from private investors, said co-founder and CEO Les Stewart. That will allow SolaranRX to manufacture more of the needed peptide and radiopharmaceuticals, followed by the first clinical studies.

Miao’s research has already established proof of concept in laboratory testing on mice, Stewart said. The clinical studies will set the company on a path to approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which could take five to seven years.