Tiny Aurora lab hopes to incubate big solutions to cancer

CU Anschutz campus profs join efforts to find drugs to stymie stubborn cancers

By SARA CASTELLANOS, Staff Writer

AURORA | SixOne Solutions’s research laboratory is only 300 square feet. It’s so small that it almost looks like a hallway. But breakthrough discoveries in treatment for breast cancer are expected in that tiny space over the next year — research that could one day lead to treating breast cancer and other cancers using drugs without toxic side effects.

“Many of us know people and have had people in their families die of cancer,” said Heide Ford, co-founder of SixOne Solutions and associate professor of pharmacology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. “We all have the hope that we’re going to make a difference some point.”

Breast Cancer Research

Associate Professor of Pharmacology Dr. Heide Ford checks out SixOne Solutions' new research site, July 22 at the Bioscience Park Center in the Fitzsimons Life Science District. The company received a $50,000 Bioscience Discovery Evaluation Grant on July 11, awarded by the state’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade. The money will be used to evaluate whether a compound of molecules can stop the spread and growth of tumors in patients diagnosed with “triple negative” breast cancer. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Breast Cancer Research

(From left to right) CEO Ginny Orndorff, Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics Dr. Rui Zhao, and Associate Professor of Pharmacology Dr. Heide Ford stand in their new research site, July 22 at the Bioscience Park Center in the Fitzsimons Life Science District. SixOne Solutions received a $50,000 Bioscience Discovery Evaluation Grant on July 11, awarded by the state’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade. The money will be used to evaluate whether a compound of molecules can stop the spread and growth of tumors in patients diagnosed with “triple negative” breast cancer. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Breast Cancer Research

Dr. Aaron Patrick, the principal scientist withSixOne Solutions, cleans out a shaker, July 22 at the company's new research site, at the Bioscience Park Center in the Fitzsimons Life Science District. The company received a $50,000 Bioscience Discovery Evaluation Grant on July 11, awarded by the state’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade. The money will be used to evaluate whether a compound of molecules can stop the spread and growth of tumors in patients diagnosed with “triple negative” breast cancer. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Breast Cancer Research

Dr. Aaron Patrick, the principal scientist withSixOne Solutions, makes space for equipment, July 22 at the company's new research site, at the Bioscience Park Center in the Fitzsimons Life Science District. The company received a $50,000 Bioscience Discovery Evaluation Grant on July 11, awarded by the state’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade. The money will be used to evaluate whether a compound of molecules can stop the spread and growth of tumors in patients diagnosed with “triple negative” breast cancer. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

SixOne Solutions, founded three years ago, is composed of four people who have just this week finished moving microscopes and cell samples to their tiny lab at the Bioscience Park Center on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.

The company received a $50,000 Bioscience Discovery Evaluation Grant on July 11, awarded by the state’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade. The money will be used to evaluate whether a specific compound can stop the spread and growth of tumors in patients diagnosed with “triple negative” breast cancer. Triple negative breast cancer patients amount to about 25 percent of all breast cancer patients, and it’s the hardest type of breast cancer to treat, Ford said.

“There’s a need there because there are no targeted drugs for that population,” Ford said. “But we think that the drugs we develop should work not only in that subset of the population but in others as well.”

The fledgling company’s long-term goal is to introduce drugs to the market that will not only inhibit the growth of tumors in breast cancer but also treat other cancers including ovarian, pancreatic, liver, brain and Ewing’s sarcoma.

But it could take as long as 10 years for drugs to hit the market.

First, the company will use the bioscience grant, along with a $292,000 federal grant, to conduct tests in cell cultures and animal models. “If we’re successful, we could potentially get a second phase of the (federal) grant that would be a lot more money, which would help us move into clinical trials,” said Rui Zhao, co-founder of SixOne Solutions and an associate professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

Zhao and Ford have been studying a particular group of molecules, called Eya2 and Six1, for about a decade. That complex of molecules contributes to an overgrowth of cells and migration of cells to different parts of the body. That’s what leads to the spread of cancer and growth in tumors.

“In cancer, one of the problems we have is that it’s an overgrowth of cells,” Ford said. “They’re growing inappropriately, at the wrong place and at the wrong time and they’re able to move around and become more invasive.”

If researchers figure out a way to disrupt the complex, they could possibly stop the spread of cancer and the growth of tumors. For now, they’ve decided to focus on inhibitors that can disrupt the complex in patients with triple-negative breast cancer. There are currently no targeted therapies for that type of cancer, so doctors have to prescribe rounds of either chemotherapy or radiation therapy, or both, to those patients. Chemotherapy and radiation are physically taxing  because they have so many side effects, including hair loss, vomiting, weight loss, and even secondary tumors and heart problems.

“The whole thing you’re doing with (chemotherapy and radiation) is killing cells,” said Ginny Orndorff, president and CEO of SixOne Solutions. “The amount that is effective for the therapy to cancer cells is also really toxic to normal cells.”

By zoning in on therapies for triple-negative breast cancer patients, the need for chemotherapy could lessen.

“One of the things we’re very hopeful of with our (targeted) therapies is that side effects will be limited,” Ford said.

Those treatments could one day benefit patients with many types of cancers. The estimated number of new cancer cases for 2013 in Colorado is 23,400, according to the American Cancer Society.

Reach reporter Sara Castellanos at 720-449-9036 or sara@aurorasentinel.com.

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