ATLANTA—Georgia State University has signed a licensing agreement with DaZen Theranostics Inc., a Delaware-based start-up company, to develop a product that can target cancer cells, function as a contrast agent to improve the visibility of cancer cells during diagnostic imaging and deliver a therapeutic drug to destroy cancerous cells.
The product will be based on a chemical compound that was created by Dr. Maged Henary, associate professor of chemistry at Georgia State. Henary’s chemical compound, a heptamethine cyanine also known to the scientific community as MHI-148, is already being used internationally in cancer imaging research. Henary developed the compound at Georgia State in collaboration with Dr. Leland W. K. Chung, formerly of Emory University and now founder of DaZen Theranostics Inc., and other scientists.
“The patented therapeutic technology from Emory and Georgia State University is a drug delivery system, consisting of a drug delivery vehicle that delivers highly effective chemotherapy exclusively into cancer cells,” said YuPing Cheng, chief executive officer of DaZen Theranostics Inc. “The therapeutic can target cancer cells with precision and re-sensitize the responses of drug-resistant cancer cells to existing therapeutics. This new therapeutic technology has been shown to be safe and effective in animal studies and to deliver the current drug of interest and also a broad spectrum of other cancer fighting drugs to aggressive and metastatic cancers, without damaging normal healthy tissues.”
The product will simultaneously detect, image and treat any type of cancer cells based on the attached drug, making it uniquely effective for cancer therapy and diagnosis. DaZen will pursue clinical trials in humans to test the product’s effectiveness.
The compound has six carbon atoms including a carboxylic acid moiety at the nitrogen atom of the heterocyclic rings, a length that Henary has found to be significant for targeting tumors. Other analogs of MHI-148 have been synthesized in Henary’s lab with more or fewer carbons and did not have the same effect. Studies have found the six-carbon chain is the optimal molecular size for tumor targeting. Its chemical composition also enables it to be attached to a therapeutic agent, as well as absorb and fluoresce in the near-infrared (NIR) region of the electromagnetic spectrum, where biological systems do not, making it useful as a contrast agent.
For years, cancer researchers have sought to develop a silver bullet to fight cancer. DaZen Theranostics Inc., which is registered in Delaware but operates in California with a 100 percent wholly owned subsidiary in China, was incorporated in 2017 to pursue a different approach. Instead of a single drug, the company has sought a first-of-its-kind delivery vehicle that delivers existing chemotherapy drugs to the subcellular organelles, mitochondria and lysosomes of cancer cells to cause their rapid death without causing dysfunction of normal human cells and organs in large and small animals. The company wants a platform technology that could allow safe delivery of therapeutic and imaging agents specifically to cancer and its metastatic deposits.
In 2009, Chung began leading cancer research at the Cedar Sinai Medical Center in Beverly Hills, Calif., and he studied the MHI-148 for the last six years. He observed that the conjugated agents to MHI-148 are not only capable of killing cancer cells, but also re-sensitizing drug-resistant cancer cells to the anti-tumor effects of a broad spectrum of agents with vastly different mechanisms of action, including chemotherapies and tyrosine kinase inhibitors. The re-sensitized cancer cells once again respond to the anti-tumor effects of these primary therapies and were observed to prolong patient survival.
In 2017, Chung decided to commercialize the technology and named his company “DaZen.” In Chinese, the name means “great kindness” because the mission of his company is to provide a cure to cancer patients.
In addition, Henary, in collaboration with Drs. John Frangioni and Hak Soo Choi at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, has developed a class of NIR imaging dyes which has been licensed by Marlborough, Mass.-based Curadel LLC and has made it to Phase II clinical trials.
These NIR fluorophores (or fluorescent chemical compounds that can re-emit light upon light excitation) create the highest possible signal-to-background ratio (SBR), which improves imaging.
Surgeons must now depend on their eyes during surgery to make sure they have removed all cancerous cells, which can lead to some cancer cells remaining in the body, multiplying and spreading to other sites. Curadel LLC is using these NIR dyes to detect cancer cells, enabling surgeons to differentiate between cancerous and healthy cells and perform more accurate surgeries when they use NIR cameras that can view otherwise invisible near-infrared light.
Dr. Maged Henary
Department of Chemistry
Henary’s laboratory focuses on synthetic organic chemistry. The group is interested in the design, synthesis and development of small molecules for biomedical application and other chemical entities suitable for therapeutic use and imaging technology, such as fluorophores for in vivo imaging of native and diseased tissues and DNA targeted agents with anticancer activity.