SBU microRNA tech sparks $10M anticancer startup

Closing in: New anticancer therapeutics are coming into focus, thanks to a microRNA technology developed at Stony Brook University.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

A Stony Brook University-developed technology, a Massachusetts-based startup and an eight-figure investment from China could pave a path toward groundbreaking cancer therapeutics.

Through an agreement with the Research Foundation of the State University of New York, a microRNA-manipulating technology developed by SBU biochemist Jingfang Ju has been licensed to Curamir Therapeutics, a startup launched in August on a $10 million stake from Hong Kong-based international innovation financer Delos Capital.

Terms of the licensing agreement were not disclosed. But Curamir Therapeutics – cofounded by Ju, DNA structure co-discoverer (and 1962 Nobel Laureate) James Watson and Lan Bo Chen, professor emeritus of pathology at Harvard Medical School – will take the “miRNA” ball and run with it.

Ju, a professor in the Department of Pathology at SBU’s Renaissance School of Medicine, has spent a quarter-century focused on miRNAs as potential anticancer therapeutics. That includes a decade at SBU, where he has leveraged grants from the Long Island Bioscience Hub, the National Cancer Institute and other sources.

Small steps: Post-doctoral fellow Andrew Fesler (bottom) and pathology Professor Jingfang Ju work on their miRNA platform.

Of particular interest to the longtime researcher is how miRNAs – small, non-coding RNA molecules containing about 22 nucleotides, with a large role to play in gene regulation and expression – might apply to cancers that stubbornly resist traditional chemotherapy treatments.

The lab work is promising. By regulating protein synthesis and helping cells rapidly adopt to new environments, miRNAs make for worthy cancer fighters; Ju and his team have even identified several that suppress cancerous tumors.

But cancers tend to overmatch the tiny regulators, eventually overwhelming them.

Enter Ju, whose Renaissance School laboratory has “modified these tumor-suppressive miRNAs to make them more stable and effective” as potential therapeutics, according to the biochemist.

“From that we have created a miRNA drug-development platform technology that is designed to treat chemotherapy-resistant colorectal cancer,” Ju added, noting the platform could be expanded to treat pancreatic, gastric, lung and breast cancers, among others.

One potentially promising use is eliminating cancer stem cells. Most chemotherapy compounds are effective against proliferating cancer cells, but cancer stem cells tend to linger; by targeting them, the miRNA platform can effectively boost chemo efficiency and overall cancer resistance.

Those are the kinds of new frontiers expected to be explored by Curamir Therapeutics, now that funding is in hand and access to its cofounder’s proprietary tech has been secured.

“The miRNA-based drug platform is shown to eliminate cancer stem cells, which are intrinsically resistant to all chemotherapeutic agents,” Ju said. “So, the application to chemotherapy resistance is potentially broad.”