Three UConn undergrads have begun developing a new form of cancer treatment

University of Connecticut students Ryan Englander, Matthew Lin and Nandan Tumu have started a company, named Vitalyx, that is developing a brand new form of cancer treatment, that they call CRISPRX.(Jason Jiang/The Daily Campus)

University of Connecticut students Ryan Englander, Matthew Lin and Nandan Tumu have started a company, named Vitalyx, that is developing a brand new form of cancer treatment, that they call CRISPRX.(Jason Jiang/The Daily Campus)

University of Connecticut students Ryan Englander, Matthew Lin and Nandan Tumu have started a company, named Vitalyx, that is developing a brand new form of cancer treatment that they call CRISPRX.

The idea for the CRISPRX treatment was originally developed in the spring of 2016 by Englander and Lin, two seniors studying biology during their sophomore year. They came up with the idea after learning about a new gene-editing technology called CRISPR/cas9, a technology that can be used to make specific, targeted changes to DNA within a patient’s body. Their goal is to apply this new gene-editing technique to cancer treatment, in a way that has never been tried before.  

“We are talking about fundamentally changing cancer treatment,” Lin said.

The fundamental cause of cancer is an error in a person’s DNA that causes body cells to grow and multiply out of control, creating a tumor. What makes the CRISPRX treatment unique is that it uses the CRISPR/cas9 technology to directly change the error in the patient’s DNA, causing the body to target and destroy the tumor, Englander said. Past cancer treatments have focused on destroying the tumor directly, without doing anything to address the root cause: the DNA. Even modern gene therapy techniques, while similar to the CRISPRX technique, work by editing the body’s immune cells outside of the body in order to make them more effective at destroying the tumor, Lin said. CRISPRX, on the other hand, works by actually editing the DNA within the patient, so that the body recognizes the cancer growth as bad, triggers cell death within the tumor, Lin said.

Dr. David Daggett, a UConn professor in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, said CRISPRX has a lot of potential, provided the science is sound.

“If it all went according to the current model, it could have a great impact. But of course, while the idea is compelling, there is a lot of experimental lab work that needs to be done to achieve a proof of principle,” Daggett said. “Selectively and efficiently killing cancer cells in patients, with little damage to normal cells, would be a great achievement, if it worked.”

The CRISPRX treatment is intended for use on patients with advanced cancer, after more conventional treatments have failed, Englander said. Another unique thing about this treatment is the number of cancer types it can treat. Because CRISPRX is attempting to treat the underlying cause of cancer, errors in the patient’s DNA, it can be used for basically every form of cancer tumor, Lin said.

One of the challenges behind the CRISPRX treatment is analyzing the patient’s DNA in order to find the specific mutations that are the root cause of the cancer, Tumu said. This requires looking at over 3 billion individual DNA points to search for the individual error. Before Tumu joined the company in May, Englander originally wrote a computer program in order to find the mutation. The program took about three hours to run. Once Tumu joined the company, he was able to complete the same search in under two minutes. Tumu, a sophomore majoring in Computer Science, specializes in advanced search algorithms, and was brought in to refine the computer programs necessary for the CRISPRX technique.

In May, the trio applied for a patent on their CRISPRX technique, which is still pending approval.  The patent application was self-funded, Englander said. If the patent is granted to them, it will prevent any other companies from using their technique. However, they aren’t trying to be possessive of their ideas, Lin said.  

“...if some other institution or entity can construct a working therapy that utilizes our method before us, all the power to them and by the same token, better for the patients who can benefit from the treatment,” Lin said.

Last spring, Vitalyx won an Innovation Quest contest, where the top 10 startup proposals at UConn were given a free business course.  During the course they learned a variety of relevant skills, such as formally establishing the company as an LLC, as well as access to a lawyer, Tumu said. The Innovation Quest helped them to learn the necessary process in order to formally register Vitalyx as a company, a process that they finished in August.

Don’t expect to see CRISPRX in hospitals soon, however. A full implementation of the treatment is still a long way off. Vitalyx conducts their research with material support from the Srivastava Lab, located at the UConn Health Center, where they are doing limited testing on cell cultures in petri dishes. Next, the trio is hoping to move onto trials with mice, followed by human trials. Even once the product is completely finished with testing, it still has to be approved by the FDA before it can be sold on the open market.  

Englander, Lin and Tumu said it will be at least 20 years before they are able to bring a final product to market.  

“We want to try and complete CRISPRX as soon as we can, without compromising the integrity of the science,” Englander said.

Looking forward, Tumu will finish his undergraduate degree, while Lin and Englander are attending medical school. Tumu is also Speaker for the Senate for the UConn Student Government. Both Lin and Englander are currently applying for medical school, and Englander is also applying to joint medical and doctoral programs. Lin and Englander both hope to incorporate their work on CRISPRX and Vitalyx into their graduate studies.


Jeremy Ray is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at jeremy.ray@uconn.edu.