Treating cancer is tricky business and chemotherapy presents the biggest challenge of all: how to kill the cancer without first killing the patient -- or inducing a multitude of toxic side effects.
The founders of Intezyne
, a biotech firm that took root six years ago in the University of South Florida Research Park
, think they may have found a way to make cancer treatment safer.
Habib Skaff and Kevin Sill met at Amherst in 2001 when they shared a grad course lab at the University of Massachusetts. Two years later, the freshly minted PhDs set out to put their newfound knowledge to good use.
"Habib said he wanted to start a company and wanted me to go with him," says Sills. "We made a list of what we could do to make an impact."
They settled on developing drug delivery systems for the pharmaceutical industry.
"We homed in on oncology as a good use for that, given the reduced toxicity and delivering more of the drug to the site where it's needed," Skaff says.
The key to their innovation is polymer micelles, which provide a means of encapsulating the therapeutic drug until it reaches the tumor, reducing the toxicity to healthy cells.
Sill compares the polymer micelles to a koosh ball.
"There's a core with stringy arms coming out," he says. "The drug goes inside that core. The strands are the polymer chains."
The problem was, the "koosh balls" quickly fall apart when injected into any fluid. "We had to figure out how to keep that from happening," Sill says.
Enter Intezyne's Ivect method, a patented process that stabilizes the polymer micelle as it travels through the body until it is exposed to acid – the trigger that breaks it apart, releasing the drug.
A pH of 5.5 to 6.5 is the "sweet spot'' for triggering the release, which happens to be the pH range of a tumor.
"How convenient is that? he muses.
Just as fortuitous was the selection of Tampa as a venue to launch the budding company.
For Skaff, who was born at Tampa General
and completed his undergraduate work at USF
, it made a lot of sense to come home – especially with the new USF incubator on the horizon.
"The cost was relatively low versus other biotech hot spots like California and Boston," he says. He had connections here, he added, and raising seed money was "relatively painless."
The first $300,000 came from Skaff, Intezyne's chief executive officer, and his partner, Sill, who serves as the company's chief science officer.
"The rest came from friends and family that believed that we had a good idea," Skaff says.
Skaff returned to Tampa in the fall of 2004 to do the groundwork, "waiting for the incubator building to get finished on the USF campus," he says.
Sill, a self-described "cornfield kid" from Peoria, IL, had only been to Florida a few times as a kid to visit his grandparents in Orlando.
"The first time I came to Tampa was June 2004 and I literally thought I was going to melt into the pavement," he says.
But the cornfield kid has since found more light than heat in the local landscape.
"I enjoy Tampa. It has the benefits of a big city without feeling like you're in a big city," he says. "I really like the fact that I'm a season ticket holder for all the sports teams. And Tampa's airport is my favorite."
But starting a company has limited the amount of time he can spend enjoying the local perks. And, he says, he spends too much time travelling these days – "fundraising, talking to investors, attorneys, clinicians, potential pharmaceutical partners and talking to manufacturers who will make our product under FDA guidelines for use on humans."
That is the most immediate goal right now: To show that this technology works inside the human body.
Intezyne's Trojan horse, as Skaff describes it, has proven remarkably effective in animal trials. "We're seeing three to four times the tolerability," he says.
Clinical trials on humans using the Intezyne system to deliver SN-38 – a drug typically used to treat colorectal cancer – are expected to begin by the end of the year.
The company also is looking to expand the use of the delivery system for the treatment of inflammatory diseases like arthritis and asthma, Skaff says. "The reason is they also have changes in pH, which is our trigger."
Intezyne, which started out with just the two 20-something lab mates from Amherst, now has 14 full time employees. Most are young chemists or biologists who have been hired locally – from USF, Moffitt
and other local businesses. Skaff expects to hire three or four more within the next year and hopes to expand to a 10,000-square-foot-facility.
The long-term goal, he says, is to develop a company that has a number of products on the market. An acquisition or a public offering could be three to five years away.
"The investors are very pleased," he says.
Intezyne has marked a number of milestones: It has signed with major pharmaceutical companies and licensed out its lead drug, IT-141, which is the polymer plus SN-38.
And then, there are the upcoming human trials and the potential they represent.
"That's really the Holy Grail," says Sill. "To be able to treat cancer without the vicious side effects."
Jan Hollingsworth is a Valrico-based freelance writer working from a restored Victorian parsonage built in the mid-1880s for a Methodist circuit rider. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.