New York-based Oncolinx, a spin-out of the Center for Advancing Innovation (CAI), a global public-private partnership, non-profit focused on creating a virtuous circle of innovation and driving growth breakthroughs through novel, creative paradigms and models, takes the development of the next generation of antibody-drug conjugates or ADCs in outer space.
Earlier this month, an Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft delivered the company’s innovative cancer experiments from Cape Canaveral to the International Space Station’s (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory, managed by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS).
As part of the project, scientists working for Oncolinx will evaluate the efficacy and metabolism of their proprietary antibody-drug conjugates, powerful, targeted cancer therapies that are more effective and have dramatically fewer side effects than current methods of cancer treatment, in a microgravity environment, wherein cancer cells grow in three-dimensional tumor models that mimic physiological forms within the human body.
These three-dimensional tumor models and are more difficult to create in laboratories on Earth.
Targeting toxic therapeutics to tumors through receptors on the surface of cancer cells can reduce toxicity and increase effectiveness of the therapies, and ADCs are a class of biopharmaceuticals that do this.
Oncolinx ADCs, armed with an azonafide, a novel cytotoxic payload developed at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), target and attack cancer cells and reduce the systemic toxicity that leads to adverse side effects commonly associated with chemotherapy.
Systemic toxicity is one of the most serious problems in cancer chemotherapy. It is often dose limiting. Azonafides are anthracene-based DNA intercalators which inhibit tumor cell growth in vitro at low nanomolar concentrations. One of the unique features is that they are not affected by the multidrug resistance or MDR. In addition, azonafides activate immunogenic cell death, which initiates an anti-tumor immune response that should produce immunological memory to prevent disease recurrence. 
‘Out of this world’
As part of their ‘out of this world’ experiment, Oncolinx will test the efficacy and drug metabolism of an azonafide ADC in microgravity cultures and, as such, accelerate the timeline to translational applications of their research.
The Efficacy and Metabolism of Azonafide Antibody-Drug Conjugates in Microgravity or ADCs in microgravity experiment is conducted in collaboration with scientists at the integrated by BioServe Space Technologies at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
The experiment is hosted in four MultiWell BioCells and two BioCell Habitats, and makes use of BioServe’s Space Automated Bioproduct Lab (SABL) and Atmosphere Control Module (ACM) to culture carcinoma (lung cells, Calu-3) at 37°C and 5% carbon dioxide (CO2).
Important cancer research
“We’re excited and privileged that we are able to do important cancer research aboard the International Space Station. [Our] team will push any limit–on this planet and beyond–to improve the state of cancer care,” noted Oncolinx co-founder and CEO Sourav Sinha.
“We are very fortunate and grateful to be working with such a great team from NASA, United Launch Alliance, and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space to make this happen,” Sinha added.
Speeding up transfer from basic research to the clinic
Oncolinx’s novel anti-cancer therapy consists of azonafide, a biologically active drug, which is attached to a select monoclonal antibody with the ability to specifically target malignant cancer cells. Due to its selective targeting of cancer cells, the novel therapy avoids adverse side effects of traditional chemotherapy, which also damages healthy cells. The research, which was planned and executed over the last 2 years, aims to accelerate the transfer of targeted cancer therapies from basic research laboratories into the clinic.
The countdown to launch for Oncolinx began when their co-founders, Sourav Sinha and Riley Ennis, entered CAI’s inaugural competition, the Breast Cancer Startup Challenge (BCSC) in 2013. The BCSC was generously supported by the Avon Foundation for Women and the National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
As a winner of the Breast Cancer Startup Challenge, Oncolinx won the opportunity to execute an exclusive license, granted by the NIH in 2015, to commercialize azonafide. Since being named a winner of the BCSC, Oncolinx has accumulated numerous awards from business plan competitions, grants, scholarships, accelerators, and partnerships with pharmaceutical companies. In November 2016, the company was thrust into the spotlight again, as they were named the $1 million grand prize winner of the 43North Startup Competition in Buffalo, New York.
“Oncolinx would not be where we are today had it not been for the CAI’s vision and expertise in helping our team get over any hurdle or obstacle. CAI’s Founder and CEO, Rosemarie Truman, made key introductions, refined pitches, made important resources accessible, and recruited some of the most prominent industry partners to ensure that our team was given an opportunity to succeed. Going forward, we should all look forward to the many great startups spun out of similar CAI startup challenges that will make an impact on human health and other diverse fields,” Sinha observed.
“Oncolinx’s platform technology is a prime example of the commercially viable inventions available for licensing that can make a direct impact on public health in the much-needed area of cancer therapy. We are especially proud of Sourav Sinha, Oncolinx’s leader, CAI’s homegrown talent which is on the cusp of the major leagues,” Rosemarie Truman, Founder and CEO of the Center for Advancing Innovation said.