By Published: Nov. 21, 2016

Professor Tin Tin Su’s research, conducted with help of undergraduate students, spawns startup company

Cutting-edge research and profoundly innovative education can dovetail nicely, as witnessed by one of University of Colorado Boulder’s up-and-coming technology transfer companies and its chief scientific officer, Professor Tin Tin Su.

CU Boulder and SuviCa recently received a patent for a promising chemical, SVC112, which helps prevent regrowth of cancer cells following radiation exposure.

The chemical was originally identified through lab research with fruit flies — a process that is being shared with undergraduate students in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology this year — and its synthesis helped create a collaborative pipeline for cross-disciplinary work through CU’s Technology Transfer Office, said TTO Director Brynmor Rees.

“The design of this compound was the initiation of a real template of collaboration for the university,” said Rees about SVC112. SuviCa identified this as a natural chemical from the Bouvardia plant as a cell-regrowth inhibitor, but a subsequent synthetic chemical was developed by CU Chemistry and Biochemistry Professor Tarek Sammakia, chemist Gan Zhang and former SuviCa molecular biologist Mara N. Gladstone.

“Having a patent that claims a novel composition — modified for its therapeutic values — is really the gold standard,” said Rees, noting that funding for the medicinal chemistry came from the Colorado Bioscience Discovery and Evaluation Grant program, now called the Advanced Industries Accelerator.

“I think it’s a big step for SuviCa.”

Professor Su has been working with fruit flies — Drosophila melanogaster, for those in the know – for more than 18 years at CU Boulder. In the beginning, she was studying the effect of radiation on the insects that share more than 70 percent of its disease-relevant genes with humans, but for the last decade has been focusing on how to keep radiation-treated cells from reproducing.

Tin Tin

Tin Tin Su. CU Photo by Glenn Asakawa

The interim chair of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology usually has about six undergrads working in her lab, but three years ago also started offering a class that contributes to the research as an option to freshmen.

“It’s a chance for them to work with real research and not in a cookie-cutter lab course,” said Su about the class, now in its third year. “We started with 16 freshmen; it’s now up to three times that; and next year we plan to offer similar courses to the entire freshman class.

SuviCa is a private company based on Su’s research that also includes several other talented researchers who were involved in developing SVC112, including Vice President for Preclinical Development Bert Pronk, who has more than 25 years of experience in research and drug development for various oncology operations in academic and industry environments.

CEO Judy Hemberger was co-founder and chief operating officer of Pharmion Corp. prior to its sale to Celgene for $2.9 billion, and said she was mostly attracted to SuviCa’s novel screening approach.

The use of fruit flies — now a patented screening technique — has some unique advantages in inexpensively putting drug candidates into the pipeline.

“They are very easy to manipulate; we can change genes in fruit flies almost at will,” Su said. “It’s cheap and fast.”

SVC112 may be used in combination with standard cancer therapies, including radiation and chemotherapy, and has the potential to be applied to a fairly wide range of cancers. The drug interacts with ribosomes, prohibiting them from producing the proteins needed for cellular reproduction.

“Cancer cells live a hard and fast lifestyle,” Su said. “They need to be able to reproduce faster than most normal cells to perpetuate the cancer.”

The fruit flies are a natural to study this type of inhibitor because their larvae have an amazing capacity to regenerate. Even after killing significant larval cells with X-rays — half of the precursors to organ growth, for instance — the remaining cells can regenerate to produce a healthy, fertile adult.

Creating the targeted compound that allowed for a strong patent, Rees emphasized, was an exemplary work of collaboration.

“It truly was a combination of working across disciplines in academia, together with different people in the industry, along with some critical state funding,” he said.