Purdue’s On Target Laboratories Lights Up the Fight Against Cancer

I have something in common with Sumith Kularatne, vice president of research and development for On Target Laboratories: We both lost our grandfathers to cancer at an early age.

My grandpa, William Bobier, had colon cancer back in the days before regular colonoscopies were a standard part of preventative care. During the oppressively humid summer between eighth and ninth grades, my Grampy died in Raleigh, NC.

Kularatne, who grew up in Sri Lanka, was so young when his grandfather died that he felt like he never really knew him, apart from the family lore that was often repeated around the dinner table. It made him wonder if his life might have turned out differently if he had more time with his grandpa—and it inspired a lifelong passion for the development of cancer treatments.

After studying chemistry in college, Kularatne went on as a graduate student to join a team of Purdue University researchers led by professor Phillip Low, director of the university’s Center for Drug Discovery. In 2009, the group announced it had synthesized a molecule capable of targeting and penetrating prostate cancer cells, improving detection and treatment of the disease.

“The molecule acts like a homing device for prostate cancer,” Kularatne said at the time in a press release. “Prostate-specific membrane antigen, which is found only on prostate cancer cells and tumor blood vessels, acts as the homing signal that the molecule targets. The molecule and its cargo go only to cancerous tissue, leaving healthy tissue unharmed.”

Low and Kularatne have since moved on to On Target Laboratories (OTL), a Purdue spinout working on the discovery and development of small molecules that, when paired with fluorescent dyes, can target and light up specific cancerous cells and other diseased tissue.

Kularatne says OTL’s technology, which has already been awarded a handful of patents and has  more than a dozen pending, can help doctors find and remove cancerous masses while preserving healthy tissue to a greater degree than has so far been possible.

OTL’s molecule acts as a “Trojan horse,” he says, finding a piece of tissue’s unique biomarkers and, if appropriate, illuminating the tissue so a surgeon can easily see its outlines and then remove it. Kularatne uses a patient with lung cancer as an example. The old method of treatment involved removing half a lung to eliminate the threat of a small tumor. With OTL’s innovation, doctors can more precisely target the bad stuff, he says.

“We want to extend the life of a patient while leaving them enough lung to breathe,” he says. “Cancer starts the fight, but we want to finish it.”

OTL, which is headquartered at the Purdue Research Park in West Lafayette, IN, hopes to eventually develop molecules that go after infectious disease and inflammation in the same way they do cancer. But first, OTL is focusing on its technology for illuminating cancerous tissue. If clinical testing goes well, Kularatne expects that OTL’s first product could hit the market in roughly four years.

The company, which officially launched in 2012, has yet to pursue venture capital backing—a development partnership with a big pharmaceutical company is preferable, Kularatne says—but it got a much-needed influx of cash in 2014 with a $15 million investment from the Pension Fund of the Christian Church and Tom Hurvis, founder of Old World Industries. OTL has also scored a number of state and federal grants.

Kularatne says ultimately, the eight-employee company is only interested in partnering with entities that are similarly interested in getting its technology into the hands of doctors for the direct benefit of cancer patients. In other words, even if offered a billion dollars, it won’t allow a competitor to buy it and leave it on the shelf.

“If one person has cancer, it doesn’t just affect that person—the whole family collapses mentally and physically,” he adds. “With our technology, a surgeon can remove 99.9 percent of the cancer. It’s more than science, it’s a humanitarian kind of thing.”

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