‘Challenge’ puts technology transfer ingenuity on display

Members of the First Diagnostics team are, from left, Elizabeth Conrad, Michael Feldkamp, Ph.D., Hailey Verano, Samantha Sarett and, at far right, team leader Kelsey Beavers. Lawrence Marnett, Ph.D., and Md. Jashim Uddin, Ph.D., fifth and sixth from the right, developed the COX-2 inhibitor that could lead to a new colon cancer test, and Uddin was the team’s scientific mentor. (Joe Howell/Vanderbilt University)

IMS Ph.D. student leads winning team

A strategy for commercializing a potential new test for colon cancer that can make tumor cells “glow” won top honors at last week’s TechVenture Challenge.

Now in its fifth year, the Vanderbilt University initiative teaches students how to bring patented “inventions” by Vanderbilt faculty members to market.

This year four teams of graduate, business and law students presented business plans for products in agriculture, general health and wellness, patient risk assessment and cancer detection to a panel of judges with expertise in technology entrepreneurship.

Five engineering graduate students were members of two teams: Kelsey Beavers, a graduate student in interdisciplinary materials science and leader of the winning team – First Diagnostics – with teammate Samantha Sarett, biomedical engineering; and, biomedical engineering students Oscar Ayala and Sue Lee, and chemical engineering student Lara Jazmin on team C3 Health.

The competition, held April 8 at the Nashville law firm Bradley Arant Boult Cummings, was sponsored by the Vanderbilt Center for Technology Transfer and Commercialization (CTTC) and the Life Science Tennessee Academic Alliance, part of Life Science Tennessee.

First Diagnostics pitched Corafix (fluorocoxib A), a fluorescently labeled selective inhibitor of the COX-2 enzyme developed by Vanderbilt scientists. COX-2 is overexpressed in many cancers, including colorectal cancer.

Conventional colonoscopy, a technique for visualizing cancerous growths inside the colon, may miss small tumors, said Beavers. Surgical removal of larger tumors also is difficult because the margins of the cancer cannot be visualized precisely.

Corafix increased the accuracy of conventional colonoscopy in animal studies when given 24 hours before the procedure. Under a special light, cancerous and pre-cancerous cells that bound Corafix now “glowed,” enabling better visualization.

If confirmed by clinical testing, the technique would be cost-effective, Beavers said, because hospitals would need to buy only an attachment to the light they already use to visualize the label, rather than purchasing all new equipment.

Corafix was developed by Md. Jashim Uddin, research assistant professor of biochemistry and scientific mentor of First Diagnostics team, and Lawrence Marnett, associate vice chancellor for Research and director of the Vanderbilt Institute of Chemical Biology.

In addition to Kelsey Beavers and Samantha Sarett, other team members were Elizabeth Conrad, graduate student in molecular physiology and biophysics; Michael Feldkamp, postdoctoral fellow in structural biology; and law student Hailey Verano. Each team member received a $250 prize.

“I feel proud of my team of students who made this event a success, and I am very excited about the technology that has attracted tremendous global attention,” Uddin said.

Amy Dix Rock, senior director of Regulatory and Scientific Affairs for Cumberland Pharmaceuticals, served as the team’s business mentor.

Team 3C Health pitched an employee wellness tool to engage employees in making better health choices. The social media tool allows customization to make effective behavior changes, links the user to a community for support and to share ideas, and gathers data to allow for continuous innovation.

3C Health was developed by Shari Barkin, a pediatric physician and chief of general pediatrics at the Monroe Carrel Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. The business mentor is Rigved Joshi, manager, New Ventures at Vanderbilt University.

In addition to Oscar Ayala, Sue Lee and Lara Jazmin, other student team members were Kayla Boortz, molecular physiology and biophysics, and Miranda Hallet, research fellow, cancer biology.