Startup Creating Tools to Test Cancer Drugs

A Purdue University biochemistry professor perhaps underestimated just how many people would want to get their hands on a technology he's developing. Fueled by a recent $150,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, W. Andy Tao is now working feverishly to commercialize a product that would test the effectiveness of cancer drugs. He hadn't even considered taking his discoveries to the marketplace until his business partner presented the research at a national meeting; when he arrived home, he was flooded with requests from scientists wanting to use the product in their labs.

"For researchers, it's a feeling of achievement if we have a product that eventually the scientific community can use," says Tao, chief scientific officer of Tymora Analytical, the company he's founded to commercialize his discoveries. "We're excited to make it successful and a good product to get in other people's hands."

The company's research involves the analysis of phosphorylation, which Tymora Chief Technology Officer Anton Iliuk describes as a major biological event related to many diseases, most notably cancer.

"Phosphorylation is an important transformation of protein very common in cancer," says Iliuk. "A lot of cancer drugs try to change the proteins that go awry by modifying them in appropriate ways. Our technology will test whether [a potential drug] is capable of reversing that negative effect that causes cancer."

Iliuk says the technology, called pIMAGO, would be a powerful tool for pharmaceutical companies to test the effectiveness of cancer drugs that are in development stages. Iliuk believes pIMAGO would tell researchers if the potential drug is working appropriately on its target.

"[pIMAGO] is unique; it's a novel idea and design in the sense that there's really not much out there right now that's comparable," says Iliuk.

The company is also developing a second tool called PolyMAC, which Iliuk describes as a discovery tool to identify new proteins that could be targeted by future cancer drugs.

"The unique design of PolyMAC overcomes some of the issues and drawbacks that surround other similar products that are currently commercially available," says Iliuk. "We have a lot of labs that have already tried it, liked it and have seen a big improvement in their identification [of proteins] and their results."

Illiuk and Tao believe the recent NSF grant is a critical victory for their company. Tymora will use the funds to complete Phase I testing of the products and explore additional applications. Listen

"At this moment, we don't exactly know how big the market and how great the application, but we feel [our products] could have greater potential," says Tao. "There are a lot of areas we really haven't explored, and this funding will certainly help us explore those different fields." Listen

While the grant is significant and will help Tymora progress, Iliuk believes finding additional funding is the most daunting challenge that lies ahead.

"We're both scientists, so we're trying to learn all the aspects of running a business and starting a company," says Iliuk. "Getting the company going is the most difficult part. While the technology is very good, trying to sell this technology and convince others it's good—that's going to be the challenge."

Iliuk and Tao are hopeful that locating their headquarters in the Purdue Research Park in West Lafayette will be the perfect antidote for their business inexperience, as Tao believes the park "has an excellent reputation of helping researchers on campus." Listen

"They have a lot of experience helping out the type of companies that Tymora is—the life sciences and engineering type," says Iliuk. "We wanted to take advantage of this experience and have as much help as possible from the research park staff."

Tao says Tymora is currently identifying about 30 major academic and pharmaceutical research labs to test pIMAGO and PolyMAC, ensuring the products are "working very well in their hands."

"We're excited to see this technology realized and used by other groups to discover new cancer drugs," says Iliuk. "It's thrilling to have something that you've been working on for the past few years be applicable in other groups—to see them have the same type of excitement, great results and great data that we have experienced."

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