A new startup born at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) in Memphis aims to reshape treatment for pediatric leukemia and neuroblastoma.

SEAK Therapeutics, LLC, began in the research lab of Pharmaceutical Sciences Professor Wei Li, who also serves as the Director of the UT College of Pharmacy Drug Discovery Center. In 2017, Wei read a paper published by Muxiang Zhou, a professor at the Emory University School of Medicine, about the identification of a known small molecule that showed promise in mouse models of pediatric cancers. Intrigued, he reached out to suggest a collaboration that resulted in the formation of a drug discovery team with complementary expertise: Wei’s lab concentrates on medicinal chemistry and small molecule drug discovery, while Muxiang, a professor of pediatrics, specializes in cell and molecular biology.

Together with Wei’s colleagues at UTHSC, the partners set to work. Aware of the initial unpatentable compound’s weak potency, the team desired to create a patentable compound with enhanced efficiency and lower toxicity. UTHSC researchers began designing and synthesizing new compounds, known as analogs, similar in structure to the original molecule, while their Emory collaborators initiated the testing of their creations on protein targets and pediatric tumors. These efforts led to the discovery of a new analog with demonstrated ability to inhibit leukemia in a mouse xenograft model, without showing observable toxicities at the tested dosages.

With support from the University of Tennessee Research Foundation (UTRF), the new treatment’s promising potential led Wei to take the leap of forming his own startup. The resulting company, SEAK Therapeutics, focuses on advancing drug development for pediatric cancers and potential small molecule drugs for neurodegenerative diseases. In September 2019, the National Cancer Institute awarded the startup with a one-year, Phase I SBIR grant in the amount of $299,823 to further develop their current lead compound. Wei’s lab partner, Zhongzhi Wu, serves as the grant’s principal investigator.

“From drug discovery to the formation of a startup, Wei Li’s experience provides a great illustration of the potential for commercialization and entrepreneurship within UT,” comments UTRF Vice President Richard Magid. “UTRF looks forward to the promising results of his work in pediatric cancers and is proud to partner with his team in helping bring the technology from lab to market.”

UTRF recently filed a provisional patent application that is co-owned by UTRF, Emory University and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Negotiations are ongoing with the startup to grant them exclusive commercialization rights.

Wei highly praises UTRF’s aid, calling the Research Foundation “a wonderful support to SEAK Therapeutics LLC.” He continues, “I’m very appreciative of their dedication to this project and flexibility on the joint agreement. Because of UTRF, the company didn’t have to pay huge upfront costs when licensing this technology, which freed more grant funding at this early stage to focus on research and advancing and maturing the technology.”

Beyond SEAK, Wei is also working to develop compounds for a range of cancers including metastatic melanoma, breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, and ovarian cancer. In addition, a drug compound born in Wei’s lab through collaboration with UTHSC Professor Emeritus Duane D. Miller and Professor James T. Dalton, now the Dean of the College of Pharmacy at the University of Michigan, is currently undergoing clinical trials in the treatment of prostate cancer.

Wei’s love for chemistry reaches back to his childhood when he first encountered the subject. As a middle-schooler, he even conducted his own at-home science experiments and chemistry projects, much to the chagrin of his parents. However, that practice paid off: He received First Prize in the experimental section of the National Chemistry Olympics Competition in China as a high school student before continuing to college to further specialize in chemistry, and eventually drug discovery.