Researchers are studying whether nature provides clues to help prevent the spread of cancer

One of the mysteries of science is that when a cow or horse develops a cancerous tumor, it remains localized and does not spread throughout the animal’s body.

Unfortunately, the same does not apply to humans, and even a small number of cancers can spread quickly. For women who undergo breast cancer surgery, for example, the chance of a recurrence can be about 25 percent.

What if healthy cells in the human body were better able to fight off invaders, just as some animals do? This is the idea that led to the creation of a startup at UConn called Genesist.

Professor of Biomedical Engineering Kshitiz Kz and Ph.D. Candidate Ashkan Noufen wants to help strengthen healthy cells near the tumor site so that they can fight any cancer cells remaining after surgery and prevent cancer from metastasis.

They have created an RNA-based drug, which will be applied as a gel to the tissue surrounding the excised tumour, to strengthen the surrounding cells. While their first target will be against breast cancer, they hope this technology will eventually be used against ovarian, colorectal and soft tissue sarcoma cells.

“Unlike other cancer treatments, we focus on the ‘good guys,’ the healthy local cells,” Novin said. “For us researchers, cancer has been a ‘black box’ and we’re trying to learn different angles to solve it. Someday there will be a cure, and I hope we can play a part in that. ”

“Now that we’ve discovered an evolutionary cause behind cancer metastasis, we can look to nature to help with the solution,” he said. “We have discovered the genes responsible for preventing the spread of malignant tumors and are introducing a new treatment to trap them.”

The company is one of the best startups in UConn

The Genesist team has participated in a number of entrepreneurship development programs hosted by the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation of the College of Business Administration (CCEI), including Get Seeded, Traction, Accelerate UConn and most recently the Summer Fellowship. This program helps UConn affiliates grow and move closer to market readiness.

“The CCEI Summer Fellowship was the best program for startups,” Novin said. “It really helped us take our ideas to the next level. The CCEI team helped us create different presentation sets for different audiences, helped us figure out what the next step should be, and introduced us to a valuable network of consultants, entrepreneurial ecosystem and resources in Connecticut.” ‘

Genesist did so well in the Summer Fellowship Final that the team was invited to the Wolff New Venture Competition in October. The competition, which awards the winner $25,000, is the biggest entrepreneurship challenge hosted by CCEI.

“I am grateful for the way UConn supports its students and faculty to develop their ideas and startups, and the tremendous resources they have amassed to help us move forward,” said Novin.

Testing in mice looks promising

The geneticist is now using samples from human patients treated at UConn Health, Yale and Hartford Healthcare to test the treatment’s success. This is the last step before you can file an application with the Food and Drug Administration. He said the results in the preliminary studies in mice were very encouraging.

The field of cancer is increasingly focusing on the body’s immune system as a source of cancer treatment, and this CRISPR-based therapy could be another new approach to fighting cancer, Novin said.

The cost of establishing a medical treatment is very high. The startup needs to raise $4.5 million before clinical trials begin, and another $3.5 million to conduct a phase one. But Novin noted that one in eight women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime and that a woman dies of breast cancer every 13 minutes worldwide. The possibility of changing that statistic, he said, motivates the Genesist team every day.

The 2022 Wolff New Venture competition will take place October 3, 5-7:30 p.m. on the observation deck at the Graduate Business Learning Center in Hartford. It will also be broadcast live on : https://ccei.uconn.edu/wolff-new-venture-competition/. This event is open to the public.