Electron microscopic image of a single human lymphocyte.

Two teams of University of Cambridge students have won a prestigious international competition to commercialise innovative breast cancer research.

When my mother passed away, I was devastated. But this competition became an opportunity to channel that difficult experience into a project that will hopefully go on to have a positive impact on breast cancer treatment and peoples’ lives.

Grecia Gonzalez

The two teams are among 10 winners of the first Breast Cancer Startup Challenge, run by US organisations The Center for Advancing Innovation (CAI), the Avon Foundation for Women, and National Cancer Institute (NCI), a part of the National Institutes of Health.
The competition is the first of its kind and was launched last September. The teams will receive a $5,000 award from the Avon Foundation for Women and CAI. The money will allow them to take the business to the next phase with their start-up business. They will also be put in touch with venture capitalists and different funding bodies who can provide more seed funding.

The Challenge is aimed at teams of business, legal, medical/scientific, engineering, and computer science students, as well as seasoned entrepreneurs and gives them the opportunity to create strategic business plans and start new companies focused on developing and commercialising 10 inventions that the NIH deems to have high potential to benefit the treatment of breast cancer and potentially other diseases.

The first team - made up of Gates Cambridge Scholar Grecia Gonzalez, Nikolaus Wenzl, Alasdair Thong, Hind Kraytem and Tim Xu - chose to focus on early stage cancer as there is no current tool in medicine which specifically addresses the distinction between early stage cancer and invasive subtypes, which require more careful and aggressive treatment planning to resolve, potentially leading to unnecessary surgery and/or chemotherapy. These early stage cancers account for 20% of all breast cancer diagnoses, and 25-50% of these cases become invasive within 10 years.

There was also a personal reason for their choice. Grecia Gonzalez’s mother died from breast cancer last year after her initial symptoms were not regarded as serious by her doctor years before. Grecia, who is doing a PhD in Biochemistry, says: “Our platform technology can access the spatial positioning of genes within a cell. The genetic information in a cell is stored in exactly the same way in every person, but certain diseases, like cancer, can cause some genes to move. Our technology can track these early changes and more accurately assess what the cancer is doing way before other technologies currently being used can.”

Many members of the team have a strong business background. Nikolaus Wenzl, Alasdair Thong, and Hind Kraytem are doing an MPhil in Bioscience Enterprise, which covers topics that parallel the competition. Tim Xu is doing an MPhil in Public Policy, Hind has a biomedical engineering background and has experience in working on start-ups from her involvement with Neuro360. The team’s business plan extends over 10 years and provides a road map for developing their business, Radial Genomics Ltd.

The second team is led by Alice MacNeil, a former Research Assistant at Cambridge Judge Business School and now at Accenture. Other members are Julia Powles, an IP attorney and PhD student in the Faculty of Law,  Moharem El Gihani, an experienced business development professional and MBA Candidate at Lord Ashcroft International Business School, Jun-Han Su, a licensed physician and Chevening Scholar in the MPhil in Bioscience Enterprise programme, Aleksandra Kotwica, a PhD student in Physiology who will be starting postgraduate medicine at Imperial College later this year, and Alexander Frey, a PhD student in Molecular Biology. Their project is about developing virus-like particles as a versatile delivery method for cancer therapeutics.

Current methods of delivering proteins or RNA [ribonucleic acid] and proteins to mammalian cells are limited by a lack of target specificity and toxicity, among other shortcomings.  Protein transduction is an emerging technology for delivering proteins into cells by exploiting the ability of certain proteins to penetrate the cell membrane.  However, the majority of the proteins delivered by this means are usually trapped and subsequently degraded in the endosomes-lysosomes of recipient cells.  Virus mediated gene delivery (or gene therapy) holds tremendous potential as a gene/RNA/protein delivery method.  Since viruses have unique ability infect cells and deliver the contents in the cytoplasm with almost 100% efficiency, two novel technologies have been developed to deliver proteins and RNAs, respectively, based on virus-like particles. The team’s company will seek venture capitalist funding for this method of treatment and will seek to establish an open innovation platform and technology pool to increase the scope of gene therapy.

After winning the competition the teams will receive advice on how to build their business. The first team have already started looking for funding sources and finalising a licence agreement with the NIH.

Grecia Gonzalez says: “When my mother passed away, I was devastated. But this competition became an opportunity to channel that difficult experience into a project that will hopefully go on to have a positive impact on breast cancer treatment and peoples’ lives. I couldn’t be happier to be taking this forward with my team.”

Douglas Lowy, M.D., NCI deputy director, said: “NCI has always had a strong interest in fostering young investigators and the fact that this challenge pairs each student team with entrepreneur-mentors to assist in the development of the business plans is another example of how we can bring new ideas and energy to cancer research."

Read Grecia Gonzalez's blog on the competition.

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