Demonstrating Commercial Promise, UChicago Researcher Recognized for Novel Cancer Drug Delivery System

Xiaoyang Wu is an associate professor in the Ben May Department of Cancer Research. (Photo by Matt Marton)

University of Chicago researcher and startup founder Xiaoyang Wu has received the 2022 Duckworth Family Commercial Promise Award for his work developing a novel cancer drug delivery system.

The award provides Wu, an associate professor in the Ben May Department of Cancer Research, with $125,000 over the course of a year to further support his research, which he has translated out of the lab to a startup: Alnair Therapeutics.

“Alnair is based on a new invention from the lab. This novel technology leverages a well-characterized metabolic feature of cancer, the Warburg effect, to achieve tumor-specific drug delivery,” explained Wu, who has founded several startups with support from the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

As he explained, the metabolic adaption to aerobic glycolysis, or “Warburg effect,” is believed to be critical for tumor cell proliferation and cancer progression. A hallmark of cancer, it is also a promising therapeutic target for treatment.

While many enzymes involved in this process have been exploited for cancer therapies – such as glucose transporters, pyruvate kinase isozymes M2 (PKM2), and mTOR kinase – it has been “highly challenging” to develop an effective treatment by targeting a single enzyme or a signaling pathway involved in the Warburg effect because of tumor metabolism complexity.

Using a fundamentally different strategy to develop a tumor-specific drug delivery system, Wu’s novel platform targets lactate itself. Current data demonstrates promising therapeutic efficacy of its system for chemotherapeutic drug (doxorubicin) delivery targeting triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) and Ewing’s sarcoma.

“Our current PK [pharmacokinetic] data show dramatic increase of tumor release of doxorubicin when delivered with our vehicle. The results have established a solid groundwork for clinical translation and commercialization of this technology,” Wu said. “Funding from the Duckworth Family Award is of tremendous help for us to move this finding to clinical application.”

Alnair – which also this year participated in Cohort 4 of the Polsky Center’s Compass deep tech accelerator program – was selected from a competitive pool of proposals and judged by a team from the University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center (UCCCC) and the Polsky Center, as well as external experts. The review criteria included commercialization potential, investigators, innovation, scientific merit, as well as feasibility of milestones and future plans.

“Dr. Wu’s work demonstrates that laboratory discoveries into the mechanisms of tumor metabolism can lead to the development of new treatment strategies that may be more effective than current treatments,” said Kunle Odunsi, UCCCC Director and Dean of Oncology for the UChicago University of Chicago Biological Sciences Division. “With the funding provided by the Duckworth Family Commercial Promise Cancer Research Award, Dr. Wu can partner with pharma to take the critical steps of clinical translation and commercialization for this novel tumor-specific drug delivery platform.”

University of Chicago Medical Center Trustee Tom Duckworth and his wife Connie in 2019 committed more than $1 million to establish the Duckworth Family Cancer Fund at UChicago Medicine, expanding the partnership between UCCCC and the Polsky Center.

The award supports projects with commercial promise, including those that are extending research with proven market viability and those which require limited funding to validate readiness for commercialization.

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