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Published in CenterView on October 08, 2012
Dr. Drazen Raucher, left, and Dr. John Hall
Dr. Drazen Raucher, left, and Dr. John Hall

Biochemistry professor’s invention increases efficacy of tumor-targeting cancer treatment

By Jack Mazurak

A patent that biochemistry professor Dr. Drazen Raucher received last month represents a major accomplishment in his decade-long development of a cancer-fighting therapy.

The method he and his team devised sends anti-cancer drugs directly into tumors. If it proves safe and works in humans, the invention could cut the amount of chemotherapy and side effects that certain cancer patients must endure.

The patent comes as UMMC leaders work to build a wide and smooth road for faculty to move their innovations from science laboratories to commercial use.

Raucher, who has a Ph.D. in molecular biophysics, applied for the patent five years ago. But his work on the therapy goes back to 2000 when he was a research assistant and instructor at Duke University working with elastin-like polypeptide molecules, or ELP.

ELP’s properties made it interesting, Raucher said.

When dissolved in solution, ELP reacts to heat by precipitating out, or forming clumps. Also, it can easily be attached to different kinds of molecules, as if connecting a locomotive engine to a box car, coal bin, passenger car or fuel tanker.

After arriving at UMMC in 2002, Raucher started modifying ELP. As if putting a plow on the locomotive’s front, he connected a peptide that can penetrate cell walls. For a train car, he chose the anti-cancer drug doxorubicin.

“Each of these components on its own does not do much. But if you put them together, you have a nice tool,” Raucher said.

He and his team injected millions of these modified ELP molecules into the bloodstreams of rodents that had cancerous tumors. Then they heated the tumors.

When ELP molecules passed into the heated tumors, they came out of solution and aggregated in clumps. They pierced the tumor cells and delivered their drug payloads, drastically reducing and even killing the tumors.

ELP molecules that didn’t go through the tumor blood vessels got filtered and flushed out of the body harmlessly.
Their 2012 paper published in Cancer Letters showed proof of principle in a rodent model with cancer.

Because the drug is targeted directly to the tumors, the scientists could use smaller doses than in conventional chemotherapy. As well, ELP attacks only the heated tumor cells, unlike conventional chemotherapy that attacks both healthy and unhealthy tissue.

Raucher and his team spent years testing and refining the therapy, and their work continues today. Grants he received from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Wendy Will Case Cancer Fund sponsored the work.

With the patent now in hand, Raucher plans to do preclinical studies, then ramp up ELP production to the amounts needed for human trials. If safety research comes out positive, he’ll look to partner with a pharmaceutical maker that can license the technology, then move toward a phase 1 clinical trial. The cost and complexity of organizing clinical trials makes partnering a necessity.

Dr. John Hall, associate vice chancellor for research, presented Raucher with the patent on Sept. 17. He said Raucher’s work is the kind that lays a foundation for tomorrow’s medicine.

“The ultimate goal of medical research is to translate discoveries into products that improve human health,” Hall said. “Dr. Raucher’s recent success in obtaining a patent for a new method for thermally targeted delivery of drugs to treat cancers is a good example of translational research.”

Patents are crucial to the technology-transfer process because they protect intellectual property.

“Without this protection, it would be extremely difficult to obtain the investments by businesses that are necessary to eventually develop the product and make it available for treating patients,” said Hall, who chairs the UMMC Patent Advisory Committee.

He and other members of the committee want to further develop the Medical Center’s tech-transfer program.

The goal is to provide the needed resources – help with documentation of invention, intellectual property preparation and outside intellectual property counsel. Tech-transfer experts could navigate faculty members through the years-long process of obtaining patents, help them start new companies, assist in partnering and licensing to industry and get clinical trials started.

UMMC already has some of the parts in place. Experienced experts sit on and advise the patent committee, a Nashville firm provides legal counsel, and business incubator space is planned in a new research building.

The patent business takes money for application fees, law firms and maintenance fees. It also takes time. In the past 15 years, UMMC has had about five patents issued.

“We probably have faculty out there who have not considered filing for their inventions and could,” said Susan Shands Jones, associate general counsel and a patent advisory committee member.
Likewise, other faculty members may have good ideas but need a friendly but frank assessment of the invention’s readiness.

“The good news on this one is this is a bench researcher who’s done excellent work in an exciting area,” Shands Jones said. “He has a lot of initiative and has followed it all the way through.
“This is an exciting time. We have an opportunity to build a technology-transfer office, experienced employees, relationships with expert consultants, and there’s incubator space set aside in the plans for a new research building.”

The Intellectual Property Lowdown

    •    Patents for UMMC faculty innovations are in the Medical Center’s name.

    •    Patents must be licensed to companies, be tested in clinical trials, pass 
        applicable governmental approvals and get to market before paying profits.

    •    If the technology is licensed and taken to market, the royalties get divided.

    •    The first $5,000 goes to the inventor.

    •    Royalties from $5,001-$500,000 are split 50 percent to the inventor, 25 percent to the inventor’s department and 25 percent to the inventor’s dean’s office.

    •    Royalties beyond $500,000 are split 45 percent to the inventor, 25 percent to the inventor’s department, 10 percent to the inventor’s dean’s office and 20 percent to the Medical Center.