A cure for cancer.
For the nearly two million people in the U.S. who are diagnosed with cancer each year, those four words can elicit a sense of great hope. But researchers know the words must be used with caution, as the world medical community continues its search for a cure to a disease that has existed for hundreds of years.
That is why St. Louis entrepreneur Lu Alleruzzo is very precise in his thoughts about using the words “cancer cure” in conjunction with a cancer vaccine that is under development by his startup company, Immunophotonics.
“I never use the word cure,” said Alleruzzo. “Through new therapies being developed and approved, I hope to see cancer becoming a controlled disease in my lifetime. What I tell people is we are in the process of investigating and developing a new weapon in the fight against cancer.”
Immunophotonics is engaged in the development of a vaccine that may help treat cancer by using a patient’s own immune system.
Alleruzzo explains the potential vaccine is a two-injection procedure that’s intended to teach a patient’s immune system to recognize their cancer as foreign, and subsequently eliminate the cancerous cells wherever they may be in the body.
“If a patient has a tumor,” explains Alleruzzo, “we would apply two injections to that tumor inside the body.”
“Essentially,” said Alleruzzo, “we would take an optical fiber, which is coupled to a laser device, and insert it into a needle. We then would inject that needle into the (cancerous) tumor. We would turn the laser on for ten minutes to heat the tumor to a specific temperature range. Then the needle would be pulled out.”
In the second part of the process, said Alleruzzo, “in the same location, we would inject our proprietary compound, which is intended to activate and recruit immune cells to the same area where the laser was applied. The combination of the two applications is intended to induce what we call a systemic anti-tumor response.”
“In laymen’s terms,” said Alleruzzo, “we are trying to make the body allergic to its own cancer.”
“Clinical trials of the procedure have been conducted in Latin America,” said Alleruzzo, “and we’re encouraged by the study results,” which were published in the Photochemical and Photobiological Sciences Journal. “But we’re still in the very early stages of the rigorous development and approval process in the U.S. and a lot remains to be done.”
Alleruzo said among the next steps for Immunophotonics is the launch of clinical trials in the United States, which, he said, is about a year and a half away.
Alleruzzo, who is 28, is a graduate of CBC high school and graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a Bachelor of Sciences degree in biological engineering.
After working in both academia and the corporate world for a short time, Alleruzzo returned to Mizzou for his MBA. At the University he met the people who eventually would become his partners at Immunophotonics, and he found his niche.
“I made the leap to say, ‘hey I am going to spend my time doing this with you guys. I’m going to take those other job offers that had great pay and benefits and I am going to move into the startup world.’ We’ve been through so much and it’s been an incredible journey,” said Alleruzzo.
More than $7 million has been utilized to develop the vaccine, with significant investments coming from organizations within the St. Louis startup ecosystem such as BioSTL, Biogenerator, Cultivation Capital, Missouri Technology Corporation and the Arch Grants program.
With its $50,000 Arch Grant, Alleruzzo said the company moved from Columbia, Missouri to St. Louis, and with the move gained valuable partnerships with medical researchers at Washington University, St. Louis University and biotech related organizations in St. Louis.
All, says Alleruzzo, with a very specific goal in mind.
“The bottom line is maximizing the number of patients that we can treat,” he said. “Every day we wake up striving to achieve that goal. We’re striving to take a new experimental therapy to patients to improve their lives and try to make a difference.”