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Forefront of Health

New venture moves tunable nanogels toward commercialization
  • UMass Professor Sankafan "Thai" Thayumanavan in his lab.

Thayumanavan’s team has assembled polymers into spherical nanoparticles, or “nanogels,” that encapsulate drug molecules and can navigate the biological system to deliver on-target therapeutic benefits.

Outside Sankaran “Thai” Thayumanavan’s 15th-floor office in Lederle Research Tower, fluffy white clouds drift across a bright blue sky. These days, the outlook for his research into nanomaterials seems just as bright. Cyta Therapeutics Inc., which Thayumanavan cofounded in 2014 with Bonnie Fendrock and Steve Faraci, recently got a boost when the Mass Technology Transfer Center awarded Thayumanavan’s lab a $40,000 Innovation Commercialization Seed Fund grant.

Given in recognition of the promise of an innovative drug delivery platform that he and his UMass research team have invented, the award should further the platform’s development into a product that could prove uniquely effective in treating liver disease. The nanogel platform will ultimately move to Cyta for commercialization.

Thayumanavan earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in science at the American College, India, and his PhD at the University of Illinois; he did postdoctoral work at Caltech and came to UMass Amherst in 2003. A professor of organic and polymer chemistry, he heads up an internationally diverse assemblage of about three dozen postdoctoral associates, graduate students, visiting scholars, and undergraduates investigating three main areas where, as the group’s motto puts it, “molecules become materials”: organic photovoltaics, supramolecular assembly and disassembly, and responsive nanomaterials.

Since 2010, the group has been developing a “nanogel,” a minute network of polymers, or large molecules, designed to encapsulate a drug for intravenous delivery. One benefit of nanogels is that they may be able to target diseased cells and leave healthy cells alone so that a patient may suffer fewer of the side effects—nausea, fatigue, hair loss—of current treatments.

According to Thayumanavan, this nanogel is distinguished by how it’s made and by its versatility and adaptability. Developed to predictably tune more than eight variables in the nanoassembly, including size and surface properties, the platform can be tailored for optimal treatment of a particular disease. Adjusting the surface density, for example, permits fine-tuning of the speed with which the drug is released, a potentially critical factor in its effectiveness.

Being able to offer such “tunability” is a breakthrough that Thayumanavan, Fendrock, and Cyta’s chief scientific officer, Faraci, hope to build on. With a résumé that includes a master’s in interdisciplinary science from MIT and an MBA from the Wharton School of Business, Fendrock also brings wide and deep professional experience to her role as Cyta CEO, including a stint as a vice president of the biotech giant Genzyme and cofounder and CEO of Hepregen Corporation.

When Fendrock was scouting for a new venture, Abigail Barrow, interim executive director of the Office of Technology Commercialization and Ventures, proved instrumental. “Abi,” says Fendrock, “pointed me in Thai’s direction. I heard from other chemists that he was a very creative person. Then I met Thai, and from a personal chemistry standpoint, I just really liked him: he’s a wonderful teacher and listener. When you start a company with someone, you need to like them and enjoy them, because you’ll be working together closely and for a long time.”

“It’s a very long road; it takes years to commercialization,” Fendrock adds. Cyta’s first steps have involved choosing a focus for development. With the global surge in obesity has come a rise—some say an epidemic—in fatty liver disease. Fendrock says that during the development phase, Cyta will focus on producing a drug to treat this or other serious, potentially fatal maladies of the liver. She estimates it will take two years of development, followed by several years of clinical trials, before the drug can be introduced to the market.

Faraci, whose background includes 25 years at the global pharmaceutical corporation Pfizer, says that much of the groundwork has already been laid. They have incubator space for their lab, and they’re ready to begin in vitro studies. As they proceed, they will be developing a drug to bring to market and actively pursuing collaborations with companies on other applications of the platform. With relatively little R&D being done into treating liver disease, Cyta’s venture could place it in the vanguard.

“Thai’s platform has a number of outstanding characteristics and the potential to be applicable to treating a variety of diseases,” notes Robert MacWright, director of UMass Amherst’s Technology Transfer Office (TTO). That potential, he believes, should make Cyta attractive to investors. Cyta was one of two start-ups to come out of UMass Amherst in 2014; in 2015, there were seven. By 2025, MacWright theorizes, dozens of these companies could be bolstering the commonwealth’s economy, providing jobs and stimulating commerce.

TTO’s support has been “fantastic,” says Thayumanavan. “I’m learning a lot of science every day,” he says, “but I’m a novice when it comes to business.” While noting that teaming up with Fendrock and Faraci should make his learning go more smoothly, he realizes that Cyta faces many challenges.

“Nature takes billions of years to evolve a figure of a specific shape or size,” Thayumanavan says. “Trying to do that in real time, we can’t hope to match the complexity of what nature does. But by mimicking some functional features of molecular design and applying certain principles, we can be opportunistic. We can bring new things into being.”

Thayumanavan’s ultimate aspiration is simple but profound. He hopes that someday, because of the research he and his group are doing, and the efforts of Cyta, there will be new drugs on the market to alleviate suffering and cure disease. “I hope,” he says, “I can make a difference in people’s lives, make their lives better.”

Faye Wolfe