Developing a High-Resolution Picture of Disease Biology

Co-inventor Colleen Janczak uses a fluorescent light to illuminate the new nanomaterials.

Co-inventor Colleen Janczak uses a fluorescent light to illuminate the new nanomaterials.

(Photo: Paul Tumarkin/Tech Launch Arizona)

The development of personalized medicine to treat diseases depends heavily upon a highly detailed level of understanding of biological processes that are inherently difficult to measure. Now, nanomaterial technology developed at the University of Arizona and licensed to startup Scintillation Nanotechnologies is making it possible for scientists to take a closer look at the processes that drive diseases in order to improve patient outcomes.

To be able to treat a disease, researchers must first be able to understand its workings, which is a tall order given the chemical and biological complexities of disease – and life in general. For more than seven decades, researchers have been using radioisotope labeling as a method for studying biochemistry and cell biology. Scientists replace atoms in chemical compounds with radioactive alternatives, which are easily traced through chemical reactions without affecting the outcome.

Radioisotope labeling has countless applications, from helping discover the mechanisms of metabolism to radioactive dating, and imaging the body's organs to diagnosing and treating disease.

While radioisotope labeling is a very sensitive method of detection, the results lack the resolution and timing needed to capture the biological complexity necessary for a deep understanding of the processes.

Imagine trying to understand a movie by looking at a series of low-resolution still photographs: the information is unable to convey the whole picture. To better understand biological processes, new methods for returning high-resolution data from detection of these radioisotopes are critically needed.

To address the challenge, researchers at the University of Arizona have developed new materials for detecting radioisotopes that provide faster and higher resolution results than today’s generally accepted methods.

The new materials were developed by Craig Aspinwall and Colleen Janczak. Aspinwall is a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and the Department of Biomedical Engineering, and is a member of the UA BIO5 Institute and the UA Cancer Center and Sarver Heart Center at the College of Medicine – Tucson.  Janczak is an assistant research scientist in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry

The new technology provides previously unseen temporal and spatial resolution in radioisotope detection, and offers a more environmentally sound alternative by reducing overall hazardous chemical usage and waste associated with previous radioisotope detection methods.

The development of these materials began with National Institutes of Health- and National Science Foundation-funded research projects in Aspinwall's lab. Upon realizing that the nanomaterials could provide several key advantages over the current methods of radioisotope detection, Aspinwall and Janczak began to explore commercialization options.

Working through Tech Launch Arizona, the office of the UA that commercializes inventions stemming from research, the two started a company – Scintillation Nanotechnologies LLC – and licensed the technology from the UA. The company’s focus is the development and manufacture of composite nanomaterials for detecting radioisotopes in biochemical research and drug discovery applications. Janczak serves as the chief operations officer and Aspinwall as the chief science officer.

TLA Senior Licensing Manager Laura Silva and Mentor-in-Residence Marie Wesselhoft worked closely with Aspinwall and Janczak on protecting the intellectual property, as well as helping them develop their business strategy.

“Working with the team from TLA helped us move from an isolated research project to thinking much bigger,” Aspinwall said. “With Laura moving the technology and patent work forward, and Marie sharing her expansive expertise, we were able to quickly put our fears to rest and focus on moving the company forward.” 

The team took advantage of two key services the office offers UA startups. First, they took part in TLA’s NSF I-Corps program, a six-week hands-on course for academic entrepreneurs that teaches lean startup methods and customer discovery. Both Aspinwall and Janczak highlight the importance of the I-Corps program, saying that it “helped us transition from thinking of research projects and descriptions to focusing on how to communicate with potential customers.”

“The ability to work with a mentor with commercial expertise and a broad view of the process significantly advanced our understanding of the commercialization landscape,” Aspinwall said.

Following the I-Corps program, the inventors continued working with iCorps mentor Ayaz Malek of F. Hoffman La-Roche and a mentoring team supported by TLA.  The program helped them connect with key collaborators, and an ad hoc advisory group helped the company formulate a business plan that would position Scintillation Nanotechnologies LLC to license the invention.

Janczak and Aspinwall also took advantage of TLA’s Asset Development funds, a program that provides funding to UA inventors for development of the technology beyond basic research and move it closer to readiness for licensing, either into a startup or an existing company.