Novel Technology Unlocks the Power of Positron Emission Tomography, Improving Disease Diagnostics
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Today marks the launch of the radiopharmaceutical company Fuzionaire Diagnostics (Dx). In light of the company launch, we spoke to Anton Toutov, Co-Founder and CSO at Fuzionaire, to learn how their radiolabeling platform can be used to improve disease diagnoses and drug discovery efforts. Anton touches on his professional background, his research on catalysis at Caltech, and how the discovery of a fundamentally new way to make and break molecular bonds can be applied to the diagnostics field.
Laura Mason (LM): Could you tell me a little more about your background? What inspired you to pursue a career in science?
Anton Toutov (AT): I was born in Kiev, Ukraine and raised in Kingston, Ontario. My parents are mathematicians and I grew up being enamored by math. I had a humble upbringing and game time at home often involved solving little math problems that my parents thought up written on a piece of paper torn out of a notebook. A correct answer led to a clue that would help me find the next problem hidden somewhere in our apartment.
With a childhood like that, as well as a great appreciation for the complex natural world, I thought I’d choose a heavily quantitative career path. However, a number of excellent academic mentors through high school and college introduced me to the fascinating world of molecules and I found my mind wandering toward chemistry. My parents were very supportive and always encouraged me to “do what I loved”, so I pursued organic chemistry at Queen's University and then my PhD at Caltech and it was the best decision that I could have made.
From a fundamental perspective, organic chemistry is to me an elegant, almost art-like science. It made its own rules and then broke them, much like bonds are made and broken in chemical reactions. From an applied perspective, it is a society-defining molecule factory, responsible for the existence of all carbon-based substances on Earth (and beyond), including anti-cancer drugs, fertilizer, non-stick cookware, tires, and even humans themselves. To me, it's impossible to not get excited about that and to not become inspired to use organic chemistry to improve the human condition in a myriad of ways.
Officially on paper, I have a PhD in organic chemistry from Caltech, where I also held Dow-Resnick, NSERC, and Bristol-Myers Squibb fellowships. Collectively, I have over 45 scholarly articles and patent grants and applications in the fields of chemical synthesis, clean energy, and drug discovery.
The most exciting among them is the discovery of a new form of catalysis, which was first published in Nature and was later presented in a more accessible way in the short documentary film Element 19.
LM: Could you tell me about the launch of Fuzionaire Diagnostics (Dx), what fueled the development of the company and what is the company’s mission?
AT: Today, we are proud to announce the launch of Fuzionaire Dx, our radiopharmaceutical company. Our goal is to unlock the full power of positron emission tomography (PET).
Our proprietary radiolabeling platform leverages a fundamental breakthrough in alkali metal catalysis to help clinicians and researchers study and cure debilitating diseases, earlier, and with unprecedented precision. Our platform is able to radiolabel any molecule at record-breaking speed, resulting in lower-cost, more targeted, and more effective radiopharmaceuticals.
It all starts with my research on catalysis at Caltech, where I worked in the lab of Nobel Prize-winner Robert Grubbs. There, my team and I discovered a fundamentally new way to make and break molecular bonds.
We discovered a way to leverage Earth abundant alkali metal-based catalysts and reagents to drive new chemical transformations and amplify existing chemical processes. It’s a dramatically more powerful, efficient, and clean way of generating catalytic reactions.
Just to set the scene, 90% of all commercially produced chemical products involve catalysts at some stage in the process of their manufacturing. The materials you touch every day, from margarine, to squeezable bottles, to garbage bags and catalytic converters rely on catalytic processes.
The unique method we discovered for making and breaking molecular bonds can be applied to any number of industries, from energy to medicine to materials, and it is what drives Fuzionaire Dx’s incredible platform that can radiolabel any ligand in seconds.
The decision to start with the application in diagnostics, and positron emission tomography (PET) in particular, was a fairly easy one to make. Both myself, and my co-founder, Nick Slavin, Fuzionaire Dx CEO, agreed that we could have an immediate impact in the world if we worked together to make this a reality.
The ultimate goal of any healthcare worker is to save and improve lives. We’re helping researchers and clinicians detect, localize, diagnose, and monitor more diseases, earlier, and with unprecedented precision; ultimately, this will help them treat patients in the most effective ways possible. We’re not doing science for science’s sake – we’re applying it to build solutions that can tangibly improve the human condition.
From the beginning, we’ve been lucky enough to engage with a wide community of experts to both validate their science and guide the way it is being applied. Soon after deciding to focus on PET, we reached out to Michael Phelps, the inventor of PET. He immediately understood that our technology could unlock the true potential of PET, and we’ve been very fortunate to have him as an advisor.
More recently, we’ve begun working with Dr. Kristin Swanson, Professor and Vice Chair of the department of Neurological Surgery at the Mayo Clinic. Dr. Swanson is helping us understand how our technology can be applied to more effectively diagnose and treat brain cancer. To give a more specific example, there are a number of famous cases of glioblastoma in the news such as those of John McCain, Beau Biden, and Ted Kennedy. Fuzionaire Dx’s technology could potentially be used to better understand and diagnose that disease, among others.
LM: Could you elaborate on some of the company’s early discoveries?
AT: The fundamental breakthrough behind Fuzionaire Dx is the discovery of a new branch of catalysis that is based on Earth-abundant metals like potassium and sodium and can occur under ambient conditions.
These catalysts are up to 10,000x cheaper than state-of-the-art precious metal catalysts and have the potential to address these previously unsolved problems in a large range of innovations across industries, which could ultimately improve the vast majority of products people use every day.
This new way of making and breaking bonds is dramatically more powerful, efficient, and clean than anything done today.
To start, my co-founder Nick Slavin and I are applying this breakthrough in catalysis to molecular imaging, specifically diagnostics.
LM: How does the Fuzionaire diagnostics platform detect cancer?
AT: Let me start by explaining why – given the vast number of medical imaging technologies – we’re focusing on PET.
PET is already rapidly emerging as the preferred imaging method of choice for in vivo imaging. If we can improve the process, PET will quickly become the dominant technique in the non-invasive diagnostics market.
Molecular imaging like PET relies on compounds (radiopharmaceuticals) that emit radiation in order to image biological function, in vivo. These radiopharmaceuticals, or radiotracers, contain a radioactive isotope, fluorine-18, which decays and generates radiation detectable by a scanner.
The radiolabel hitches a ride to the disease receptor via a ligand, which are specific to each disease. One thing that’s important to note is that we don’t actually create the ligands – research institutions and companies do that, and we’ll partner with them. We provide the platform for synthesizing and attaching a fluorine-18 molecule to the ligand.
To zoom back out, many of the barriers to improving PET and improving its impact are the result of basic limitations in chemistry. The most obvious reason is that radioactive molecules decay. The half-life of fluorine-18, or the rate at which it decays, is 109.8 minutes. This puts a strict time limit on the PET process from chemical reaction to actual patient scan.
Our patented fluorine-18 radiolabeling method enables the ultra-efficient production of fluorine-18 molecules for PET scans.
These radiopharmaceutical compositions result in superior radiolabeling characteristics, like lower cost and increased usable time of radiotracers, better specificity, and less off-target imaging. The result is more useful images for a much broader range of biological targets and a greater breadth of diseases. It’s also disease-agnostic, meaning that if there is a disease-targeting ligand that exists, we can radiolabel it.
What all of this means is that our method will help researchers and clinicians localize and diagnose disease earlier and more accurately. This is also the first time a platform has existed that has the potential to radiolabel any ligand. Currently, there is a time-consuming, logistically-complex process to developing individual radiotracers and the types of radiotracers that are accessible by synthesis are limited as a result. With our proprietary radiochemistry platform, the manufacturing and discovery process becomes much more general and streamlined, opening the door to previously inaccessible radiopharmaceuticals and these will be able to be synthesized at much lower cost and with far greater speed.
Imagine if you could catch the biology of any cancer early enough, you can cure it. It doesn’t become a race against time and a battle against the cancer. If you can change the approach to cancer to wiping out the early cells, the cancer doesn’t have a chance to become a thing.
It’s an ambitious future. There’s no doubt. We’re excited to help society get there.
LM: Can this technology be used for other purposes, such as therapeutic delivery?
AT: Yes! Our heterocyclic chemistry is actually very well-suited to combine diagnostic and therapeutic approaches in a single molecule.
But our platform’s ability to radiolabel any molecule will also impact therapeutics by enabling PET to be used more regularly as a tool in the drug development process.
PET imaging is already valuable, when used, from the earliest stages of drug discovery. It provides unique pharmacokinetic information for new drug candidates and quantification of drug properties in vivo. Our radiolabeling platform can make PET a ubiquitous, essential, and cost-effective tool that improves decision-making and increases returns on R&D investment throughout virtually all stages of the drug development process.
Anton Toutov was speaking to Laura Elizabeth Mason, Science Writer for Technology Networks.