Researchers Investigating Whether Nature Offers Clues To Help Prevent Cancer Spread

Looking for new strategies to solve the ‘black box’ of cancer

One of the mysteries of science is that when a cow or a horse develops a cancerous tumor, it remains localized and doesn’t spread throughout the animal’s body.

Unfortunately, the same isn’t true for humans, and even a small number of cancer can metastasize quickly. For women who undergo breast-cancer surgery, for example, the chance of recurrence can be about 25 percent.

What if the healthy cells in the human body were better able to fight off the invaders, just as some animals do? That’s the idea that led to the creation of a UConn startup called Genesist.

Biomedical engineering professor Kshitiz Kz and Ph.D. candidate Ashkan Novin want to help fortify healthy cells near a tumor site so they will fight off any cancer cells that linger after surgery and prevent cancer from metastasis.

They’ve created an RNA-based drug, that would be applied as a gel to the tissue surrounding an excised tumor, to empower the surrounding cells. While their first target will be against breast cancer, they hope the technology can eventually be employed against ovarian, colorectal, melanoma and soft-tissue sarcoma cells.

“Unlike other cancer treatments, we’re focusing on the ‘good guys,’ the local, healthy cells,” Novin said. “For us researchers, cancer has been a ‘black box’ and we’re trying to learn different angles to solve it. One day there will be a cure, and I hope that we will play a part in that.”

“Now that we’ve discovered an evolutionary reason behind cancer metastasis, we can look to nature for help with the solution,” he said. “We’ve discovered which genes are responsible for preventing metastasis and we are introducing a new therapeutic to trap them.”

Company Is One of UConn’s Top Startups

The Genesist team has participated in a number of entrepreneurial advancement programs hosted by the School of Business’ Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation (CCEI), including Get Seeded, Traction, Accelerate UConn, and most recently Summer Fellowship. That program helps UConn-affiliated companies to grow and move closer to market readiness.

“The CCEI Summer Fellowship was the best program for startups,” Novin said. “It really helped us take our ideas to the next level. The CCEI team helped us create different pitch decks for different audiences, helped us know what our next step should be, and introduced us to a valuable network of advisors and entrepreneurial ecostystem and resources in Connecticut.”

Genesist performed so well in the Summer Fellowship finale that the team was invited to the Wolff New Venture Competition in October. The competition, which awards $25,000 to the winner, is the pinnacle entrepreneurship challenge hosted by CCEI.

“I’m grateful for the way that UConn supports its students and faculty to advance their ideas and startups, and the tremendous resources that they’ve assembled to help us move forward,” Novin said.

Testing on Mice Looks Promising

Genesist is now using samples from human patients treated at UConn Health, Yale, and Hartford Healthcare to test its treatment success. That’s the final step before it can submit an application to the FDA. In preliminary studies on mice, the results are extremely encouraging, he said.

The cancer field is increasingly focused on the body’s immune system as a source of cancer treatment, and this CRISPR-based therapeutic can be another novel approach to fight against cancer, Novin said.

The cost of creating a medical treatment is extraordinarily expensive. The startup needs to raise $4.5 million before clinical trials begin, and another $3.5 million to conduct the first phase. But Novin noted that one in eight women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime and that a woman dies of breast cancer every 13 minutes across the world. The potential to change that statistic motivates the Genesist team every day, he said.

The 2022 Wolff New Venture Competition will be held on Oct. 3, from 5 to 7:30 p.m. on the Observation Deck at the Graduate Business Learning Center in Hartford. It will also be livestreamed at : This event is open to the public.

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