The new therapy uses small particles (nanoparticles) that are specifically designed to deliver a toxic radioactive compound called holmium-166 (Ho-166) to ovarian cancer cells, while leaving healthy cells unharmed.
Unlike currently-available ovarian cancer treatments that spread throughout the body, this new therapy remains confined to the abdominal cavity, targeting cancer cells that have already spread from the ovaries to the surrounding tissues.
“That’s where we want the radioactivity to stay,” Xiuling Lu, acting CEO of Nami and associate professor of pharmaceutics at the University of Connecticut’s School of Pharmacy, said in a press release. “We don’t want it spreading throughout the body. It stays put in the region with the cancer cells.”
An additional advantage of Nami’s technology over current treatments is that its manufacturing process is safer, faster, and more efficient because technicians handle the radioactive compounds for shorter periods of time.
“People know that making radioactive isotopes is hard. Nobody wants to handle that,” Lu said. “Ours is a safe, effective, and far more economical process because our manufacturing uses non-radioactive materials and then simply requires a one-step conversion to make it radioactive.”
Nami is an early-phase startup company run by scientists from the University of Connecticut (UConn) and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The company was funded in 2018 based on nanotechnologies developed by Lu and her colleagues at UConn, as well as innovative technologies that Lu and her co-founder, Michael Jay, created nine years ago at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Nami, based at UConn’s Technology Incubation Program, is now focusing on developing its targeted drug-delivery approach to treat women with advanced forms of ovarian cancer who have an estimated five-year survival rate of 28%.
“Our mission is to bring patients who have already exhausted many treatment options another chance to live a cancer-free life,” Lu said.
Nami is also developing a nanoparticle-based therapy to reduce the recurrence of leukemia by targeting and destroying cancer stem cells with chemotherapy agents. Preclinical studies testing these candidates are currently underway, with clinical trials planned in the future.
Nami has received support from UConn’s NSF I-Corps Site, Accelerate UConn, and the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, which have all provided the company with entrepreneurial training and seed funding.
“These programs helped us shape our business plan, so we started to think like entrepreneurs and business people as well as scientists. A lot of technologies are so fancy and look so nice, but you can’t move that technology as a product without understanding the business side of things,” Lu said.
Lu and her colleagues recently received a grant from the NIH National Cancer Institute‘s highly competitive Small Business Technology Transfer program. The team is among the 13% of applicants in this round that received funding to commercialize promising new technologies.
“We’re still an early startup, but we have a big mission,” Lu said.
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