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Nature-inspired research leads to vaccine and drug-delivery technologies for cancer

Editor’s note: Tummala, a professor and graduate program coordinator in pharmaceutical sciences, has more than 20 years of research experience in disease biology, immunology and drug delivery.

Graduate student and faculty using microscope
Tummala is at right, shown here working with a graduate student.

The body’s immune system senses pathogens as foreign particulate and produces danger signals, which prompts its fighting forces to ramp up.

By taking advantage of this knowledge, Tummala’s research team discovered a plant fiber (inulin) that sends pathogen-like danger signals to the immune system. Using a modified version of the fiber (inulin acetate), it has prepared tiny virus-like particles that are 300 to 400 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. The particles deceive the immune system as viruses to activate without danger of any infection. These tiny nanoparticles were used to deliver vaccines for influenza and cancer antigens.

Several patents were granted to the technology around the world, including the European Union, Australia, Japan, Spain and Brazil. The technology is licensed to Medgene Labs for commercialization.

The project received funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop an influenza vaccine for the pig industry. Currently, Tummala’s group is working to use the vaccine technology to ramp up the immune system against cancer, especially against melanoma and pancreatic cancers.

Harnessing the power of turmeric/curcumin
Curcumin has been a household remedy for centuries in India to control infection and inflammation. Despite its historical safety and benefits, curcumin is not soluble in water, so it is difficult to get into the bloodstream.

Tummala’s group developed a polymer-based curcumin formulation, called Ora-Curcumin that is 5,000 times more water-soluble than curcumin. Preliminary studies in mice showed that it enhances the blood levels of curcumin by 20 to 30 times.

The research was funded by the South Dakota Board of Regents, Profile by Sanford,  SDSU Scholarly Excellence Funds and the College of Pharmacy and Allied Health Professions.

The patented technology was licensed to Academic Technology Ventures, which will develop and market commercial products through the startup company, Turmeric Ultra Inc. The company will conduct human safety trials and obtain Food and Drug Administration Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) certification as a food additive or dietary supplement.

Developing a drug for preventing colorectal cancer
An American Cancer Society study found colorectal cancer rates are increasing among adults age 50 and younger, which makes developing a means of reducing colon inflammation a priority for the National Institutes of Health.

To address the need, Siddharth Kesherwani and Chaitanya Valiveti, doctoral students from Tummala’s laboratory, developed another version of Ora-Curcumin which, when consumed by mouth, will not dissolve until it reaches the large intestine or colon. “This is a great way of locally delivering a powerful natural anti-inflammatory drug to the colon for local diseases like ulcerative colitis or colon cancer without unnecessarily exposing the whole body,” Tummala said.

Tummala is collaborating with Dr. Amar Singh, a gastrointestinal biochemist and associate professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and a researcher at the Buffett Cancer Center in Omaha.

Ora-Curcumin significantly reduced colon damage and improved mucosal healing in mouse models of ulcerative colitis even at doses 20-30 times lower than reported curcumin studies.

“Recent studies clearly showed potential for Ora-Curcumin in preventing the progression of colorectal cancer in cell-culture models. We are very excited about the potential of Ora-Curcumin to improve people’s health and treat chronic diseases, however, cautious about the long pathway of drug discovery,” Tummala said.