There is nothing bleaker to a family than being told that their loved one’s cancer has stopped responding to chemotherapy and there are no more options.
UT Health San Antonio and spinoff company Terrona LLC want to end that.
“We can help patients for a time, but there comes a point when we do not have further therapy that we can utilize,” said Susan L. Mooberry, Ph.D., professor of pharmacology in the Joe R. & Teresa Lozano Long School of Medicine at UT Health San Antonio.
“To be able to provide further therapies for cancer patients would be impactful. We are working to solve a tremendous unmet medical need,” she said. Dr. Mooberry is a member of the Mays Cancer Center, the newly named center at UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson Cancer Center. She also occupies the Greehey Distinguished Chair in Targeted Molecular Therapeutics.
Dr. Mooberry devised a research test to screen plants for anticancer capabilities. Her research has centered on the Bat Flower (Tacca chantrieri), a tropical plant that is cultivated for sale as an ornamental. This flower yields a class of compounds that effectively treat multiple-drug-resistant tumors. To date, the studies are in mice.
With support from the Office of Technology Commercialization at UT Health San Antonio, Dr. Mooberry is listed as co-inventor on two U.S. patents on the compounds. UT Health San Antonio last year granted Terrona LLC the exclusive worldwide license to bring the Bat Flower-based anticancer technology to market.
The compounds are called taccalonolides and have a similar mechanism of action as an existing group of cancer chemotherapy drugs called taxanes. Taxanes and taccalonolides stabilize microtubules, which are cellular structures that function as railroad tracks moving cargo within cells. Cancers co-opt these railroad tracks for their own rampant growth. Microtubule stabilizers stop the abnormal cargo movements, which stresses the cancer cell and causes it to die.
The taxanes, which include paclitaxel (Taxol), are billion-dollar chemotherapy drugs discovered about 40 years ago. They have their limits, as some patients either do not respond to them or become resistant over time.
In mouse models of cancer, the Bat Flower-derived taccalonolides overcome that resistance, Dr. Mooberry’s team found. Studies of the mechanisms that underlie this effectiveness are ongoing, she said. Study collaborator Robert Cichewicz, Ph.D., and a team of University of Oklahoma chemists are modifying the compounds for optimal therapeutic effect.
Terrona CEO Craig Dionne, Ph.D., said the science behind the taccalonolides is mature, and the studies also show that the taccalonolides cross the blood brain barrier, which prevents many drugs from passing from the blood into brain tissue.
“The ability for our lead candidate to cross the blood brain barrier is revolutionary, and it opens the door for drug development in areas where there is little current competition,” Dr. Dionne said.
“We’ve tested the taccalonolide compounds against breast cancers primarily, but we’ve also seen their efficacy in ovarian cancers,” Dr. Mooberry said. “And because these compounds can cross the blood brain barrier, they may have potential to treat brain cancers.”
“Our goal is to be in clinical trials within two years,” said Amit Mehta, M.D., chief medical officer of Terrona LLC. “We have deep experience in executing on clinical trials with similar products and plan to use that to expedite helping as many patients as we can. We are confident that the taccalonolides will be beneficial for patients, and we know how to develop them in a timely and cost-efficient manner.”