Geoffrey Clark, Ph.D.
Geoffrey Clark, Ph.D.

A University of Louisville-born invention that may help treat cancer now has a commercial partner.

Qualigen Therapeutics Inc., a California biotechnology company focused on developing novel therapeutics for the treatment of cancer and infectious diseases, has signed a license agreement for the technology and plans to fund continued development with UofL to ready it for market.

The technology works by targeting the RAS protein, which sends signals that regulate when and where the body produces and grows new cells. When mutated, the protein turns into a “stuck accelerator pedal,” according to UofL researcher Geoffrey Clark, who co-invented the technology with colleagues John Trent and Joe Burlison.

“Normally, it gets pressed when you need to grow and then the foot comes off and the cell slows down,” said Clark, professor of pharmacology and toxicology at UofL. “When it becomes mutated, the accelerator’s jammed on, with cells continuing to grow and ultimately becoming a cancerous tumor.”

The drug targets only the active RAS protein and, so far, has little toxic effect on healthy cells. Many current non-targeted treatments, such as chemotherapy, can hurt both healthy and cancerous cells, leading to painful side effects. By some estimates, targeting this mutation could stop the growth of at least a third of human tumors.

“The patient impact could be extremely broad because RAS is involved in a lot of different cancers,” Trent said. “It’s one of the holy grails that there has been limited success in targeting.”

Trent leads the Molecular Modeling Facility at UofL Health – James Graham Brown Cancer Center and the UofL partnership with Dataseam, a non-profit with a network of school computers across the state. When the computers aren’t being used by students, they’re connected to act as a distributed supercomputer, allowing researchers to process and analyze huge amounts of data.

Trent used that capability to run through millions of cancer-fighting drug possibilities in a matter of days. The result was a drug that could inhibit the deregulated RAS protein. Development of the technology was supported by the UofL NIH REACH ExCITE program.

Qualigen holds an exclusive license to the technology through the UofL Commercialization EPI-Center, which works with startups and industry to commercialize university-owned technologies. This license agreement builds on a sponsored research agreement with Qualigen for the development of several small-molecule RAS Inhibitor drug candidates. Qualigen also has licensed and is developing other UofL technologies for fighting COVID-19 and cancer.

“Partnering on this new cancer-fighting technology is another example of the relationship we’ve developed with the University of Louisville,” said Michael Poirier, CEO of Qualigen. “We look forward to working with UofL and to advancing this important clinical program with the goal of developing an effective treatment for this unmet need.”

More information about supporting this cancer research at UofL is available online.