George Mason University

News at Mason

Mason breast cancer treatment patent is licensed by Targeted Pharmaceuticals

August 5, 2019   /   by Lauren Huey

Virginia Espina

A patent granted to George Mason University Research Foundation Inc., which describes a pre-invasive breast cancer treatment method, has been exclusively licensed to Targeted Pharmaceuticals LLC, a Massachusetts-based biopharmaceutical company.  

The patent, secured by faculty members of Mason’s Institute for Biohealth Innovation, covers autophagy inhibitors as a way to treat cancer. Autophagy is a natural pathway for making cellular energy through recycling; parts of the cell that are not needed anymore or that are defective are broken down to produce energy.

In many conditions, such as neurodegenerative diseases, cancers, infectious diseases, and metabolic conditions, autophagy goes awry. In cancer especially, it can be a double-edged sword: It can help kill tumors by initiating cell death after exposure to cancer treatment, or it can actually help the cancer cells survive by providing energy during severe stress. The latter pathway can sustain pre-invasive, malignant cells within the intraductal environment of early stage breast cancers.

Virginia Espina, a Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine (CAPMM) research associate professor, has been investigating autophagy pathways for several years. Her team realized that if the autophagy pathway was interrupted, it could cause the cancer cells to die. 

"When we first started, it was under-appreciated that autophagy was used as a survival mechanism and not just a mechanism of cell death," Espina said. 

Lance Liotta

Espina, fellow Mason researcher Lance Liotta, MD, and Inova Health System’s Kirsten Edmiston, MD, led a clinical trial to investigate autophagy inhibitors in patients with breast ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). The trial was conducted in collaboration with Inova and tested the malaria medication chloroquine as an autophagy inhibitor. They found that chloroquine measurably reduced the proliferation of pre-invasive breast cancer cells. 

"The results of the trial made it clear that our discovery had the potential to treat breast cancer before it spreads," said Liotta, co-director and co-founder of CAPMM and professor at Mason's College of Science. 

This breakthrough caught the attention of Targeted Pharmaceuticals, which aims to continue pushing research boundaries with its newly acquired intellectual property. 

"We are extremely excited to enter this new frontier and continue the great work that Mason has already done on the treatment of DCIS breast cancer," said Jaret Christopher, co-founder of Targeted Pharmaceuticals. 

Targeted Pharmaceuticals is focused on the use of cannabinoids and is committed to supporting translational research. In addition to this patent, they have also licensed intellectual property developed by Mason researcher Fatah Kashanchi and his team on the effects of HIV on the central nervous system.