WisBusiness: Company aims to bring novel cancer therapy to clinic

By Caroline Schneider

For WisBusiness.com

NanoOncology, a biotechnology company founded in 2010, is looking to revolutionize cancer treatments and fulfill a currently unmet need in later-stage cancer therapeutics.

The company is the third startup founded by chief executive officer Thomas Primiano. He started NanoOncology after talking with another founder of several successful companies, Lonnie Bookbinder.

“Lonnie had some new cancer targets,” said Primiano, “and the company evolved from those discussions.”

While Bookbinder was in Montana at the time, Primiano convinced him Madison was the best place for the company to operate. NanoOncology now has its offices in Madison’s University Research Park, and Primiano is setting up the laboratory.

The work of NanoOncology could have great effects in the field of cancer therapeutics.

“We have a new target,” Primiano explained, “and if we can block the function of this gene, it will destroy the cells.”

NanoOncology aims to block function of that gene using a technology called RNA interference, a process by which a specific cellular gene can be silenced. This Nobel Prize-winning technology has been used in the laboratory for several years with Science magazine calling it the “Breakthrough of the Year” in 2002. The ability to silence tumor-promoting genes is now making RNA interference an area of great interest in cancer therapy.

To deliver the RNA interference drug, NanoOncology is licensing a nanoparticle system from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which owns the technology.

“We attach our drug to the nanoparticle delivery system to target it specifically to different types of tumors,” Primiano said.

To date, NanoOncology has successfully tested the drug on breast, ovarian, and lung cancer cell culture models. The company is currently seeking an initial round of $2 million to introduce the technology into other modeling systems.

The importance of the NanoOncology’s therapy lies in two main advantages over current treatments.

“The target we’ve discovered is specific for the later stages of cancer,” Primiano explained. “That’s where the real problem is. If you have stage III or IV lung or ovarian cancer, there’s not much out there that works.”

The other advantage to their technology comes out of the nanoparticle delivery system.

“Because we’re targeting specific cells,” said Primiano, “we’re reducing the side effects of normal chemotherapy.”

To get their product into clinical trials, NanoOncology is working with well-known partners. Primiano has talked with Covance about doing the preclinical testing and is also working with Next Generation Clinical Research, another Madison-based company.

“We’re going to work with them to file the Investigational New Drug, or IND,” Primiano added.

The IND is a request for authorization from the Food and Drug Administration to administer an investigational drug to humans and distribute it across state lines. This application will bring NanoOncology one step closer to clinical trials.

NanoOnology is certified as a Qualified New Business Venture by the Wisconsin Department of Commerce, and in November, the company is taking part in the 2010 Early Stage Symposium organized by the Wisconsin Technology Council. This symposium brings together entrepreneurs, startup companies and investors.

“We will present our technology and our business to investors in the hopes that we can recruit funds to get our first product into clinical trials,” explained Primiano.

Primiano hopes to see that product advance into trials within the next year, bringing the possibility of late-stage cancer treatment closer to a reality.

— Schneider is a graduate student in the UW Life Sciences Communication program.