DevaCell, Inc. was founded in 2011 on an award-winning nanotechnology that allows precise and safe delivery of disease-fighting enzymes. Its core innovation is the Synthetic Hollow Enzyme Loaded Shells (SHELS) silica-based delivery system invented by Inanç Ortaç, Ph.D., an electrical engineer who migrated into cancer research as a doctoral candidate at the Moores UCSD Cancer Center under then-Director Dennis Carson, M.D.
With financing from the National Cancer Institute, Ortaç set out to deconstruct cancer therapy challenges, and he soon focused on enzymatic activity. “Enzymes used in cancer therapeutics are vulnerable to immune responses,” he explained. “How do you prevent that? You put the enzymes in a cage so that antibodies can’t reach them. That will reduce the side effects.”
The holes in the virus-size nanoparticles – 1/1000th the thickness of a human hair – are large enough to allow molecules of an infused “pro-drug” to enter and be activated by the enzymes, but too small to allow entry to immune system activated antibodies. Since the SHELS accumulate by the trillions in the leaky vasculature of a tumor, the activated cancer fighting drug works only on the target, reducing collateral damage to surrounding tissues.
“The beauty of our technology is that the product is very simple,” he said. “The mechanism of the enzyme’s action had already been tested and validated. So we didn’t start from scratch.”
Working with Carson and with his doctoral advisor, Sadik Esener, Ph. D., Professor of Photonics and Nanotechnology, Ortaç sought validation for his product by entering competitions, and the results were electrifying. SHELS won the Grand Prize in the National Collegiate Inventors Competition of 2012, an honor that landed Ortaç on a Forbes list of “The Greatest Young Inventors in America.” The next year, SHELS received First Prize in the 2013 UCSD Entrepreneur Challenge. “The Technology Transfer Office and the ‘Entrepreneur Challenge’ really helped us,” said Ortaç. “A scientifically interesting idea doesn’t necessarily translate into the clinic and a new company.”
Now serving as DevaCell’s chief technology officer, Ortaç credits UC San Diego’s interdisciplinary culture for his success. “Nanotechnology applies engineering solutions to biological problems,” he said. “UCSD is one of the few places where you can have these interactions between people from different fields and centers and departments.”
Preclinical trials are underway using SHELS for a number of cancer types including colorectal cancer, pancreatic cancer, acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and metastatic breast cancer. Esener has joined DevaCell as co-founder, and he is enthusiastic about the company’s prospects.
“One of the exciting applications of nano-SHELS technology,” he said, “is their use to deplete tumor nutrients, which will make them particularly useful for blood cancers and certain solid tumors.” Leukemia and HIV-related cancers are also being studied using the SHELS technology.
DevaCell’s CEO is Ibrahim (Abe) Gökçe Yayla, Ph.D., who received his doctorate in Electrical Engineering and Applied Physics from UC San Diego. Drawing on his extensive experience managing start-ups, Yayla has put DevaCell on a firm business footing. “You have to have a plan and a focus, and deadlines become extremely critical,” he said. “They aren’t critical in academia, but they are everything for a company. If you don’t keep to a schedule and meet your milestones, the door closes.”
Ortaç has adapted well to the demands of commercialization. “As you refine your product, things like marketing and management become more important,” he concluded. “If you believe in your technology and you believe it will help people, you have to commit to it and take the initiative. Ultimately, if it’s not in the clinic, it’s of no use.”
6650 Lusk Blvd, Suite B105, San Diego, CA 92121
Tel: (858) 699-4775
Fax: (858) 263-7092
Ibrahim (Abe) Gökçe Yayla, Ph.D. – CEO
Inanç Ortaç, Ph.D. – Chief Technology Officer
Sadik Esener, Ph.D. – Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board
Inanç Ortaç, Ph.D.
Electrical Engineering at Jacobs School of Engineering,
UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center