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.