Dr. Michael Schultz, chief science officer with Viewpoint Molecular Targeting LLC in Coralville. CREDIT VMT
By Katharine Carlon
An innovative new method of pinpointing the location of advanced skin cancer that has spread to other parts of the body has won a University of Iowa startup a $2 million vote of confidence from the National Cancer Institute.
Viewpoint Molecular Targeting LLC, based at the UI BioVentures Center in Coralville, was awarded a Phase II Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract last month to support pre-clinical studies of its lead product, VMT-01.
VMT-01 is an injectable radiopharmaceutical that can be used to both determine the location and extent of cancerous tumors in the body and, later, to more accurately direct lethal doses of radiation to those same cancer cells in the body.
“There is definitely a very highly competitive environment to attract these funds, so this is a great honor,” said Dr. Michael Schultz, the company’s chief science officer and a UI associate professor of radiology, adding that the funding would allow Viewpoint to prepare the new therapy for the next stage: clinical human trials and approval by the Food and Drug Administration. “This is exciting. It’s a validation of the company and the company’s science.”
Dr. Schultz explained that VMT-01 “takes advantage of cellular characteristics of metastatic melanoma cells that are unique. It molecularly binds to melanoma cells and doesn’t bind to normal cells.”
VMT-01 is part of a new class of drugs called “theranostics,” which take advantage of the fact that many cell surface receptors are overexpressed in tumor cells. Theranostics target these receptors to precisely identify the site of disease and deliver toxic payloads directly to tumors.
Dr. Schultz said the VMT-01 diagnostic itself has a very low risk for adverse side effects, so that while cancerous cells would be “elegantly depicted on the radiological scan” with the injection clinging only to melanoma cells, the remainder would safely wash through the body and be eliminated in urine. The results of such scans would show clinicians the precise location of cancerous growth, and offer an unusually well-defined, personalized target for VMT-01 radiopharmaceutical therapy later.
“Melanoma, if caught early, can be stopped,” Dr. Schultz said. “But if it spreads, it’s very aggressive and difficult to treat. It can be a tough nut to crack.”
While most people know melanoma is a skin cancer, metastatic melanoma – also known as stage IV melanoma – indicates the cancer has spread to tissue beyond the skin, such as lymph nodes, the liver or other organs. Melanoma, often caused by exposure to UV rays from the sun or tanning beds, is one of the fastest-growing cancer incidences in the world, Dr. Schultz said. Current diagnostic testing usually involves invasive biopsy and imaging such as X-rays, CT and PET scans and MRIs.
“We have a very promising approach that these NCI funds can help us to refine in order to design our first clinical trials in humans and submit an investigational new drug application to the FDA,” he said. “It’s a very exciting time for us.”
The NCI’s SBIR program, funded through the National Institute of Health, was created to encourage innovation and help small companies develop and commercialize new technologies to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer. Viewpoint was previously awarded $900,000 in Phase I SBIR grants and contracts.