Montana State University

Research on potential cancer therapy becomes focus of new company

May 19, 2003 -- by Annette Trinity-Stevens


MSU scientists Charles Spangler (left) and Aleksander Rebane of Rasiris, Inc., a Bozeman company researching a potential cancer therapy.   High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
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A chance discovery by a group of Montana State University scientists is the core of a new Bozeman business aimed at detecting cancers and treating them without surgery or chemotherapy.

The company, Rasiris, Inc., was incorporated last week by MSU research chemist Charles Spangler with funding from a Seattle venture capital firm.

"If the process works, it will revolutionize the treatment of cancerous tumors," Spangler said recently while taking a break from company business.

The investment, called seed stage, from Pacific Horizon Ventures means Rasiris can start a series of experiments that will test whether the new technology will do what its inventors think it will.

The discovery exploits a treatment called photodynamic therapy. In this technique, a patient ingests special compounds that migrate to tumor cells inside the body. The compounds kill the tumor cells when activated by a beam of laser light outside the body.

The Food and Drug Administration has approved only a few compounds for photodynamic treatment of some skin disorders and a type of eye disease. But the method doesn't work against tumors more than a few millimeters underneath the skin. That's because the current tumor-seeking compounds can't absorb wavelengths long enough to penetrate deep inside the body, where most tumors are found.

But that may change, owing to a lucky strike at MSU that opened up the possibility of using longer wavelengths in photodynamic therapy to non-invasively treat solid tumors and to diagnose them, too.

"Our breakthrough was to discover [chemical] compounds that have longer wavelength absorption," Spangler said.

The inventors--Spangler, physicist Aleksander Rebane and former graduate student Eric Nickel--sought patents through the university and started a company called MPA Technologies, Inc. in a local business incubator.

Now the investment from Pacific Horizon Ventures and the formation of the spin-off company Rasiris means the scientists can focus more heavily on the cancer applications, specifically the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. Work on other uses for the new compounds will continue through the parent company.

"The development of a non-invasive targeted treatment for breast cancer and other tumors that have previously been unreachable for light-based therapies holds tremendous promise," said Jean-Pierre Laurent of Pacific Horizon Ventures. "We are pleased to welcome Rasiris to our validation portfolio."
Rasiris scientists have several milestones to reach in the next 18 to 24 months, said Spangler.

They must prove that the chemical compounds are non-toxic and that they go only to the tumor site and not to nearby healthy tissue. The compounds have to accumulate in the tumor rapidly and then leave the body quickly, too. And the research must show that a laser can activate the compounds' tumor-killing properties deep inside the body.

If all goes well, the project will move on to animals studies, human clinical trials and final FDA approval--a process that could last 7 to 11 years, Spangler said.

For now, Rasiris has four employees with four or five more ready to come on board. In two years it may reach 10 to 15 employees, said Spangler. It's located at TechRanch in the Advanced Technology Park near campus.

Contacts: Charles Spangler, (406) 994-3932, uchcs@montana.edu; Aleksander Rebane, (406) 994-7831; rebane@physics.montana.edu; Becky Mahurin, (406) 994-2752; rmahurin@montana.edu; Bruce Jackson, Pacific Horizon Ventures, (206) 682-1811; jackson@