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Avelas Biosciences, Startup from UCSD Nobel Laureate, Seeks to Spot and Bomb Tumors

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using the targeted peptides for cancer drugs. Just like you can attach a fluorescent tag to one of these peptides to help it light up on camera and tell you where the tumor is, you can attach a chemotherapy agent to create an anti-tumor smart bomb. The global market for cancer drugs was worth $66 billion in 2008, and is estimated to grow to $84 billion by 2012, according to research from Cowen & Company.

The precise imaging capability of the peptides will be used to guide Avelas through animal experiments to help determine first whether its cancer drugs are hitting the target as intended, Tsien says. The goal will be to get one of the cancer drug candidates through animal tests and into clinical trials in two to three years, R&D chief Gonzalez says.

“For most people, the imaging is a little crutch people use to help with developing a therapeutic,” Tsien says. “For us, the imaging may come first and pay off in its own right, and teach us how to do the therapeutic approach best.”

The big trick, of course, with cancer is finding a drug that only hits the cancer cells and doesn’t go “off-target” and hit healthy stuff, causing side effects. There is some off-target toxicity that needs to be dealt with, because some normal organs may have the enzyme activity that attracts the peptide drug, Tsien says. Avelas will have to pick its shots wisely in animal experiments, to focus on organs that have the enzyme activity in the right organs, like lung cancer, he says, but probably not brain cancer, because the peptides probably can’t cross the blood-brain barrier.

There are a couple of competitors out there with slightly different technologies. VisEn of Cambridge, MA is using a different kind of fluorescence for medical imaging, Finnegan, the CEO, says. Denmark-based PhotoCure uses a combination of light to activate drugs, which is a bit different.

Tsien, for his part, is continuing the push the envelope further with his fluorescent tags in his UCSD labs, studying things he considers interesting for cardiovascular disease, but which aren’t ready for a company yet. Naturally, he isn’t giving up his day job, especially now that as a Nobel Laureate, he joked he has gotten a precious parking spot near his lab.

But what really attracted Finnegan to this company in these early days? It was partly because Avelas has a platform technology that could give rise to a number of different kinds of opportunities. But more than that, it was about the people.

“Roger is so bright, and passionate about what he does. Everybody wants a piece of him, and yet he’s still generous with his time,” Finnegan says. “Being able to work with a Nobel Laureate, how many people really have the opportunity to do that?”

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