Amal Ayoub uses cancer’s traits against itself for earlier and better diagnosis
Cancer. Why haven’t we cured it yet? Although the disease (which is actually dozens of different diseases) appears resistant to an overall cure, tumors detected early enough can be eradicated by a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
So then the question becomes, how do we detect tumors early?
This is the puzzle that perturbed Nazareth-born Amal Ayoub during her PhD studies in Biomedical Engineering at Israel’s Ben Gurion University. The question led her to later found Metallo Therapy a Nazareth-based startup that has so far received $1.2 million in seed funding.
As a graduate student, Ayoub realized that a key to helping patients survive cancer was improving the current diagnosis methods, which consist of PET-CT scans (Positron emission tomography–computed tomography) as well as CT scans with contrasting agents.
“Both these methods have limitations,” she told Geektime in a phone interview.
“The substances used in both are not specific to cancerous cells. For instance, with the PET-CT, a radioactive tracer is used that gets absorbed by inflamed cells. But with some cancers, for instance, prostate cancer, the cells around the tumor do not develop inflammation, so there is no uptake of the tracer.”
This leads to false negatives, where a tumor exists but is not diagnosed. Similarly, sometimes there is inflammation in the body that is unrelated to cancer. This leads to false positives.
Ayoub delved into these issues as a doctoral student and in 2010 founded Metallo Therapy, to allow doctors to see tumors in a precise way. The technology she developed, based on gold nanoparticles, allows doctors to detect tumors earlier than they might otherwise be able to. It also allows them to see the ,precise boundaries of the tumor and whether it has metastasized. Furthermore, once treatment has begun, it will allow doctors to very quickly determine if the treatment is active or inactive.
How does Metallo Therapy’s technology work?
“Gold is a heavy metal and is considered inert—supposedly it doesn’t interact with the human body,” said Ayoub. “When gold nanoparticles enter a tumor, they provide better contrast in CT scans than other contrasting agents, like iodine.”
The problem is, when you break gold down into nanoparticles, it can and does interact with proteins and other molecules, becoming toxic. Ayoub and her team developed a new surface coating for the gold nanoparticles that renders them non-toxic, and even better, targets cancerous tissue in a very specific way. When the nanoparticles are highly concentrated in a tumor, the tumor shows up very distinctly in a CT scan.
“That is our IP. It’s a coating made up of amino acids.”
Scientists have recently found that cancer cells need more amino acids and protein molecules than healthy cells, Ayoub told Geektime.
“That’s because they are growing and dividing so rapidly. The amino acids in the coating enhance their uptake into the cancerous cells.”
But that’s not all. Once the cancer has been diagnosed and radiation therapy is underway, the gold nanoparticles generate secondary radiation, which adds an extra dose of lethality to the cancer cells.
A minority within a minority
Metallo Therapy was founded four years ago with $1.2 million in seed money from the office of Israel’s Chief Scientist, venture capitalists and Nazareth’s NGT Technology Incubator, a a high-tech incubator favored by Arab Israeli entrepreneurs as it is the only jointly owned and operated Arab-Jewish incubator in Israel.
“As an Arab woman, I needed the support and funding from NGT, a program that supports equal opportunity for Arab entrepreneurs.”
When asked whether it was difficult to break into Israeli high-tech, Ayoub responded that, “from a young age I loved science and wanted to be a scientist or a doctor.”
In high school, Ayoub followed the 5-point Physics track for her matriculation exam, which is considered one of the toughest courses of study in Israeli high schools.
“But I wasn’t the only one. Lots of students took advanced science courses. Funnily, they were mostly girls. Neverthless, girls like me in the Arab sector often become teachers. They don’t find jobs in high tech.”
When asked why, Ayoub averred, “it’s complicated. Arabs living in Israel are mostly not integrated into Israeli high-tech. The industry prefers Jews who did military service. Arabs have less experience because they lack the military background and also there’s the geographic distance between the north and Tel Aviv. Most Arabs live in the periphery, far from Tel Aviv.”
In terms of Arab women, Ayoub says, “it’s even more complicated. They tend to go into teaching and non-professional jobs.”
Next stop: more funding
Metallo has already completed several proof-of-concept studies in mice tumor lines and human tumor lines implanted in mice. The company has successfully shown that there is enhanced uptake of gold nanoparticles by cancerous tissue.
The next step is to conduct safety studies in small animals, followed by clinical trials on humans. To that end, Ayoub said, Metallo is looking to raise $2 million in Series A funding.
“We’re in the middle of the process.”
The product’s target audience would be hospitals anywhere in the world.
“As a startup, we plan to develop the product to the market. But another scenario is if a big pharma company finds it interesting, they could buy the IP or the company.”
In the future, chemotherapy doesn’t have to feel awful
Another feature her company is working on, says Ayoub, is to use gold nanoparticles to target chemotherapy in a very specific way to tumor cells.
At present, chemotherapy impacts every cell in the body.
“It can destroy every proliferating cell in the body, that’s why it’s toxic and has a lot of side effects.”
But if chemotherapy could be targeted to tumor cells only, the patient would suffer far fewer side effects.