Cancer surgery involves cutting out tumors and lymph nodes, but the surgeon cannot always see which tissues are cancerous and which are not. Avelas Biosciences has commercialized a technique developed at UC San Diego that lights up cancerous tissue in a luminous map. The tool gives surgeons real-time information for making decisions during surgery, and it helps speed up post-surgery pathology reports, reduce pain, and lower the need for additional surgeries.

The Avelas technique uses a fluorescent peptide, AVB-620, that is injected into the bloodstream, where it attaches to cancer cells and lights them up for viewing through a special lens. It has shown a greater than 25 percent success rate in illuminating cancer cells in pre-clinical trials, and clinical trials are on the horizon.

The peptide was developed in the labs of UC San Diego biochemist Roger Tsien, Ph.D., who shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his research on Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP), a tracer molecule first discovered in jellyfish and used to track living cells that need targeting.  Tsien’s GFP breakthrough has been the launch pad for several biotech companies. He is a co-founder of Avelas, and he remains active with the firm as a research collaborator.

Avelas Biosciences licensed the in vivo imaging technology from UC San Diego after identifying a need in oncology surgery for more accurate identification of cancerous tissue in the breast, lymph nodes, and colon. The firm estimates that the market for AVB-620 in breast cancer, which is its lead indication, could be $200 million to $300 million, and it could reach another $400 million in cancer margin detection, mapping the extent of cancerous tissue in the body.

AVB-620 also has shown promise in shielding nerves from accidental injuries during difficult surgeries. A research team that led by Tsien and Quyen Nguyen, M.D., Ph.D., a UC San Diego professor of head and neck surgery who was an AVB-620 co-inventor, has found that the peptide helps alert surgeons to the location of peripheral nerves that are hard to see.

This is particularly useful, Nguyen said, “if the nerves are invaded by a tumor. Or, if surgery is required in the setting of trauma or infection, the affected nerves might not look as they normally would, or their location may be distorted.”

Avelas Biosciences was founded in 2009 with $7.65 million in financing from Avalon Ventures, plus funding from venture capitalists.  In 2013, the company announced that it had secured another $6.8 million in a second round of financing from Torrey Pines Investment, WuXi PharmaTech, and an additional unnamed investor.

That same year, Avelas received a 2013 San Diego Business Journal Innovation Award in the Medical Devices category for “breakthrough technologies and unique new products developed by San Diego companies.” As Avelas Chairman Jay Lichter, Ph.D., told the Journal, “The medical community is under immense pressure to reduce costs and improve patient outcomes. With high surgical procedure costs and operating rooms costs coming in over $60 per minute, it is clear that advances that reduce a patient’s time in the OR are needed.”

Avelas wrapped up Series B financing totaling another $7.4 million in September 2014 to fund clinical trials and develop a platform product known as the Avelas Cancer Illuminator. “It will be delivered intravenously pre-op, either the evening before or a few hours before surgery, fitting into the current surgical practice,” Avelas CEO Carmine Stengone told UT San Diego. “The really interesting feature is we’re using the pathology of the tumor itself to unmask it.”

Avelas Biosciences, Inc.
11099 N. Torrey Pines Road Suite 290, La Jolla, CA 92037
Founded: 2009

Jay B. Lichter, PhD – CEO
Jesus “Tito” Gonzalez, PhD – VP, Head of R&D
Carmine Stengone, MBA – VP, Corporate Development

Private financing – Avalon Ventures

Technology Innovators:

Roger Tsien, PhD
Professor, Pharmacology/
Chemistry & Biochemistry,
Cancer Biology Program,
Howard Hughes Medical Institute


Quyen T. Nguyen, MD, PhD
Assistant Professor
Division of Otolaryngology –
Head and Neck Surgery
Otology, Neurotology,
Skull-Base Surgery