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Startup works to bring cancer drugs to the market faster

Legal News Reporter

Published: April 10, 2018

While there is no one factor or rule that determines how quickly the U.S. Food and Drug Administration might approve a new drug, it often takes years for a pharmaceutical company to bring a new drug to market.

In fact, a large number of experimental treatments never even progress to human clinical trials, with the research being scrapped in the very early stages of a drug’s development.

But the co-founders of the Akron-based startup OncoSolutions are working to increase a company’s odds of success, specifically when it comes to cancer drugs. They’ve developed technology intended to help get new cancer drugs to market faster in an effort to save some of the hundreds of thousands of lives lost each year.

“Based on our interviews with industry members, we discovered that up to 80 percent of cancer drugs fail in animal studies during oncology preclinical drug discovery testing and 95 percent fail in clinical trials,” said OncoSolutions Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Stephanie Ham, who received her Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from The University of Akron in 2017. “This results in wasted time and money spent testing ineffective cancer drugs.

“Currently pharmaceutical companies use 2D cancer cell models to study drugs prior to animal tests,” said Ham. “OncoSolutions uses a patented technology to grow live 3D tumor models that resemble humor tumors, thereby offering researchers a more precise way to test the success of their drugs before animal studies even begin, decreasing costs and the time it takes to bring new drugs to market.”

OncoSolutions Co-founder and Chief Technical Officer Hossein Tavana, Ph.D., said the technology is also being used to gain a better understanding of the biological mechanisms that allow cancer cells to grow as well as how compounds can be used to prevent cancer cell growth and potentially kill the cells.

“The human body is three dimensional,” said Tavana, an associate professor in the Biomedical Engineering Department at The University of Akron, who runs the Tissue Engineering Microtechnology Laboratory. “Thus it is important to capture a tumor’s response to particular drugs using a three-dimensional biologically relevant in vitro model since cells in 2D cultures do not react the same way.”

The company began in September 2016, but the research took place several years before while Ham was working on her Ph.D. at The University of Akron.

“The technology was the subject of my dissertation,” said Ham, who grew up in Mentor, Ohio and has a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Miami University.

“My dissertation work included developing and testing the 3D cancer cell model,” she said. “I served as the entrepreneurial lead during our participation in the National Science Foundation I-Corps Teams and Sites customer discovery programs in which we conducted over 100 customer interviews. 

“It became apparent that there was a need for this type of technology in the preclinical cancer drug discovery market.”

Tavana served as Ham’s dissertation advisor during her five years at The University of Akron, assisting in the invention of the now patented technology that became the basis for OncoSolutions.

“Our 3D engineered tumor model involves two aqueous polymer solutions that are immiscible at specific concentrations (similar to oil and water, but both aqueous),” said Tavana.

“We use a liquid handling robot to mix the compounds and the result is a 3D droplet containing cancer cells that remain intact and consistent,” he said. “The process is completed within one day.”

The third co-founder is attorney Elyse Ball, an assistant counsel and project manager at The University of Akron Research Foundation.

Ball serves as chief operating officer and leads The University of Akron’s National Science Foundation I-Corps site program.

“Elyse mentored our team through the customer discovery phase and has since helped form OncoSolutions and raise funding,” said Ham.

“We currently hold two patents on the technology.”

The company is housed on the eighth floor of the Bounce Innovation Hub.

“We were already a part of the ecosystem in the community because of our connection to The University of Akron Research Foundation,” said Ham. “When we initially moved into the building it was the Akron Global Business Accelerator.

“The location is great, the rent is inexpensive and we have a great lab space.”

Right now Ham is the only full-time employee at OncoSolutions. She raised $240,000 in capital during the company’s first year, which was used to build its lab.

The goal is to hire more people as funding becomes available.

“We are applying for funding from public and private agencies that will allow us to evaluate the technology further,” said Tavana. “We are also looking into securing customers so that we will be able to expand our business.”