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Grant Funds Exosome Cancer Research, Optioned to Spin-Off

Kristina Trujillo

Kristina Trujillo (Exovita Biosciences)

9 June 2015. A new $1.7 million grant from National Cancer Institute is funding research at University of New Mexico on harnessing exosomes as potential cancer therapies, with a spin-off company already optioning the technology for commercial development. The alliance between the university and spin-off company, Exovita Biosciences, includes an agreement between the university and company to develop the findings into therapies.

The five-year grant from National Cancer Institute, part of National Institutes of Health, funds the work of New Mexico molecular biologist Kristina Trujillo to understand the processes behind the development of anti-cancer properties in exosomes, particularly in fighting breast cancer. Exosomes are vesicles, tiny — 40 to 150 nanometer — lipid-membrane containers in cells that gather up and secrete cytoplasm, the gel-like material outside the cell nucleus.

While originally believed to carry out waste removal and other maintenance tasks, exosomes were shown in recent years to perform useful delivery functions carrying proteins and genetic material to other cells, and drawing increased attention from a range of biological disciplines. As more of these delivery functions were revealed, researchers focused initially on opportunities provided by exosomes as biomarkers for diagnosing disease.

More recently, researchers are investigating exosomes’ therapeutic potential, such as delivering antigens to trigger immune reactions from T-cells. A number of clinical trials are currently testing exosome therapies with humans, mainly for cancer.

In her research, Trujillo already identified a type of protein, known as transforming growth factor beta or TGF-ß, that appears to be expressed in tissue near the site of breast cancer tumors, but the tissue resists tumor growth. Trujillo’s studies show as well that connective tissue cells known as fibroblasts in this region secrete exosomes that resist tumor growth much like tissue with TGF-ß properties.

In the new study, Trujillo plans to isolate and analyze the molecules in these exosomes, including RNA analysis, and test the ability of exosomes associated with TGF-ß to silence tumor growth signals. Since the exosomes expressing TGF-ß appear to stop only the growth of tumor cells and leave healthy tissue unaffected, this property makes exosomes an attractive potential cancer therapy, without the toxic side effects of chemo or radiation therapy.

Exovita Biosciences was formed earlier this year by John Chavez, an Albuquerque entrepreneur who also founded New Mexico Start-Up Factory, an incubator for new businesses commercializing research from universities or national labs, and the site of Exovita. The company holds an option for an exclusive license for the research, on which the university filed two patent applications last year.

In February, the company also signed an agreement with University of New Mexico to develop therapies initially for breast cancer, based on Trujillo’s research. The National Cancer Institute grant funds only the university’s research, not development of therapies from those studies.

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