Ban-​​An Khaw, a phar­ma­ceu­tical sci­ences pro­fessor in the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences, was recently named a finalist for this year’s Mass­Chal­lenge, an annual $1M global startup com­pe­ti­tion and accel­er­ator pro­gram for entrepreneurs.

The award will help Khaw fur­ther the research behind a com­mer­cial ven­ture estab­lished in 2009 with Joel Berniac, MBA’05, the pres­i­dent, co-​​founder and chief oper­ating officer of Akrivis Tech­nolo­gies.

Akrivis Tech­nolo­gies aims to improve cancer detec­tion and drug delivery through a novel mech­a­nism Khaw orig­i­nally devel­oped to iden­tify car­diac cell death, in which a polymer dec­o­rated with any kind of mol­e­c­ular entity — from radioac­tive markers to cancer drugs — is deliv­ered directly to an area of interest.

Unique mol­e­c­ular tags, or anti­gens, pepper the sur­face of every living cell. Some tell the immune system not to attack; others dis­tin­guish one cell type from another. Tumor cells present anti­gens that are unique to cancer, pro­viding the oppor­tu­nity for tar­geted drug delivery and early cancer detection.

Mon­o­clonal anti­bodies specif­i­cally designed to rec­og­nize tumor anti­gens are tagged with radioac­tive markers and injected into the blood­stream where they seek out and stick to tumor cells. The radioac­tive markers gen­erate a signal high­lighting the tumor’s location.

But most tech­niques are still lim­ited in their ability to iden­tify small tumors. In exper­i­mental tests with mice, Khaw explained, tumors need to com­prise about six per­cent of the total body mass before they become vis­ible. For humans, this directly trans­lates into kilogram-​​sized tumors, which don’t require spe­cial diag­nostic methods beyond the naked eye.

We want to be able to see mil­ligram amounts before the lesion becomes large enough to send out metastatic cancer cells,” said Khaw, whose novel mech­a­nism ampli­fies the signal gen­er­ated by these techniques.

Instead of tag­ging anti­bodies with a single radioac­tive marker, Khaw tags them with a receptor–antibody com­plex. He then intro­duces what he calls “the Christmas tree”: a polymer dec­o­rated with dozens of markers.

The method has already enabled a one million-​​fold improve­ment over tra­di­tional mon­o­clonal anti­body cell imaging tech­niques and Khaw expects to improve that even fur­ther, down to the level of single cells in a drop of blood.

Most people don’t want very sen­si­tive detec­tion,” he said, because cur­rent treat­ment methods wouldn’t be able to address such low levels of cancer. “But,” he added, “we can sac­ri­fice sen­si­tivity for speed.”

The method also has the poten­tial to sig­nif­i­cantly improve drug delivery and reduce the cel­lular tox­i­city asso­ci­ated with chemotherapy. Tra­di­tional drugs show only slight pref­er­ences for cancer cells and must be intro­duced into the body in large amounts to have any effect, which causes the death of healthy cells along­side can­cerous ones.

If he swaps the radioac­tive markers with cancer drug mol­e­cules, Khaw sud­denly has a tar­geted and highly con­cen­trated therapy. What’s more, “It doesn’t kill cells until it gets inside them,” he said. A nat­ural process of the cell breaks down the polymer, freeing the drug mol­e­cules to do their job. When the entity is floating around in the blood stream, how­ever, it has no toxic properties.

I would like to see some­thing that I have done in my life­time be helpful to people,” said Khaw. Mass­Chal­lenge pro­vides expert entre­pre­neurial men­toring and access to funding and media. With this help, Khaw hopes that Akrivis will achieve the vis­i­bility required to bring his tech­nology to the place it mat­ters most: the clinic.