Hackel to introduce new molecular imaging technology for cancer research

Oct. 7, 2016 - MN-Reach grant moves cellular-level tumor probe closer to market (Twin Cities Business, writer: Don Jacobson) With support from a MN-REACH award, Assistant Professor Ben Hackel is poised to introduce a new molecular imaging technology that could redefine cancer treatments. Hackel's lab has succeeded in producing a molecular imaging probe targeting the epidermal growth factor receptor, which is over-expressed in cancer cells, and enhances the ability of doctors to stratify patients by likely prognoses. “What we’re making is a particular imaging agent for going after a particular biomarker (EGFR) that is important in numerous cancer types, including colorectal cancer and breast cancer,” Hackel said. “We are developing a molecule that can target EGFR in the human body and be detectable by positron emission tomography (PET) scans. It’s a way of identifying which patients are likely to respond to a particular type of therapy versus patients who aren’t likely to respond – it’s a personalized medicine approach. Clinics right now don’t have a very good way of differentiating between these two patient populations, so we propose that a PET imaging approach would be able to provide that.”

Hackel is a recipient of a MN-REACH award. MN-REACH, supported by a $3 million National Institutes of Health grant and $3 million in matching university funds, is based out of the school’s Office for Technology Commercialization. It is one of three “research evaluation and commercialization hubs” established by the federal agency around the country, whose missions are to distribute grants of up to $150,000 for health care technologies that both address unmet medical needs and are within “a few actionable steps” of commercialization.

What Hackel and his University of Minnesota associates have done thus far is to develop the protein scaffolding molecule and test it in mouse models of breast and colorectal cancers. “It has performed well, and so the MN-REACH funding -- $30,000 to begin with and up to $150,000 ultimately -- is to take it the last few steps before commercialization,” he continued. “It’s focused on making some small but important modifications in the molecule so that it will perform more effectively at the human patient level.”

Hackel is working closely with the University’s tech commercialization office as to how the patent-pending molecular probe should be presented to investors in advance of the human clinical trial process. “There are two paths it could take,” he said. “One is licensing it to the large current players in the molecular imaging space, companies like GE Healthcare, for instance, which already have a lot of investments in this technology. “A second pathway is to continue its development through a newly created company. We have not yet spun out a company on this particular technology but we are already very actively engaged in discussions with local investors if that’s going to be the appropriate path to go down.”

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