Success Story

Penn State startup developing spatially targeted cancer therapy

UNIVERSITY PARK – The current standard of care for treating cancers of the head and neck, specifically squamous carcinoma, often leads to severe side effects for the patient. Surgery to remove the cancer tissue is the preferred treatment but can result in critical tissue loss. As such, many patients are not candidates. Radiation and chemotherapy can also result in severe side-effects including tissue damage and systemic toxicity.

Penn State startup Illuminate Therapeutics is working to create a potent and targeted treatment for head and neck cancers that will cause minimal damage to healthy surrounding tissues. The treatment leverages Illuminate’s Light Activated Drug Delivery and Release platform, or LADDR.

“The doctor would use a very focused light, such as a laser, to activate a light sensitive nanoparticle that delivers a nucleic acid that would target many different genes within the cancer cell,” said Illuminate Therapeutics co-founder Daniel Hayes. “Because it’s such a precise methodology, we are able to use more potent chemicals to target the cancer cell that we wouldn’t be able to use safely throughout the whole body. That control is critical to avoiding very severe side effects.”

Hayes is a professor of biomedical engineering, director of the Penn State Center of Excellence in Industrial Biotechnology, and Dorothy Foehr Huck and J. Lloyd Huck Chair in Nanotherapeutics and Regenerative Medicine. He is also the head of the department of biomedical engineering.

Other members of the startup team include Illuminate Co-founder Julien Arrizabalaga, senior scientist and postdoctoral scholar at the Penn State Huck Life Sciences Institute and the Material research Institute, and Elizabeth Berezovsky, an Executive-in-Residence at General Inception. Illuminate was founded in partnership with Palo Alto-based General Inception, a venture studio and Igniter company that co-founds life science startups with top researchers across the globe.The startup is currently participating in the Invent Penn State Startup Leadership Network 2024 Board of Advisors program, which matches an expert business advisory board to participating research-based startups interested in commercializing their technology. Illuminate also won first place and $75,000 in the 2022 Invent Penn State Venture & IP Conference Tech Tournament.

“The Startup Leadership Network is an invaluable asset for Illuminate’s management team,” Hayes said. “Having access to the deep pharmaceutical and medical device market experience of the Penn State alumni has been a true force multiplier and is helping shape the go-to-market strategy for Illuminate’s LADDR platform technology.”

“The potential uses of light activated nanoparticles is a research question I’ve been working on for probably a decade now or more,” Hayes said. “I thought that cancer would be a good application of the technology, and in the last three or four years, we’ve got some really dramatic data that justified its use in cancer.”

Illuminate Therapeutics also participated in the Invent Penn State NSF I-Corps short course in 2022, which provides commercialization training sessions to participating startups. Additionally, the Office of Technology Management at Penn State has been a key partner for the Illuminate team to move their technology forward through the commercialization process. Hayes said he has also made use of the free Penn State Law Entrepreneur Assistance Clinic and the IP Clinic, both available through Happy Valley LaunchBox powered by PNC Bank.

“My advice to other Penn State researchers looking to commercialize technology is to participate in the NSF I-Corps short course – it was such a critical piece for us,” Hayes said. “Also, to get their students involved as early-stage members of the company. Take advantage of the tremendous number of resources available through Happy Valley LaunchBox and Invent Penn State.”

About Invent Penn State

Invent Penn State is a commonwealth-wide initiative to spur economic development, job creation and student career success. Invent Penn State blends entrepreneurship-focused academic programs, business startup training and incubation, funding for commercialization, and university/community/industry collaborations to facilitate the challenging process of turning research discoveries into valuable products and services that can benefit Pennsylvanians and humankind.  

This project was financed in part by a grant from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Community & Economic Development.