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Introducing a Game-Changing Element

Tatva Biosciences — the sixth spinoff from the University of South Alabama’s Mitchell Cancer Institute — tests a silver-based sunscreen that repairs as well as protects. It could reach the marketplace in two to three years.

​Seema and Ajay Singh have relied on a team approach in forming Tatva Biosciences.

​Seema and Ajay Singh have relied on a team approach in forming Tatva Biosciences.

Tatva Biosciences, a young Mobile company, is building its business on silver nanoparticles — hoping it can transform some promising research into a marketable product that can help prevent skin cancer and repair some already sun-damaged skin.

The research was born at the University of South Alabama Mitchell Cancer Institute (MCI), where the husband and wife business partners Seema and Ajay Singh are both Ph.D. researchers. At MCI, he heads the Cancer Health Disparities Program, and she is a breast and melanoma pathobiology researcher. They chose the name Tatva for its dual meaning in Sanskrit — referring both to “essence of life” and to “element.” It’s particularly suitable for their new company, because Tatva’s primary technology deals with the element silver. 

Specifically, silver nanoparticles are used in a sunscreen or, as the Singhs prefer to call it, a sun protection cream. It acts as a sunscreen and repairs damage caused by the sun’s harmful UV radiation. The novel discovery that silver nanoparticles are effective in repairing cancer-causing sun damage could have a transformative impact on skin cancer prevention, the Singhs explain.

Silver nanoparticles are silver molecules synthesized to be between 1 to 100 nanometers. These microscopically small particles can be created through several modes of synthesis. Plant-based methods are often preferred, because they rely on transforming the silver element using natural compounds and, therefore, do not add chemical complications to the technology.

Known for their antimicrobial and anti-pathogenic properties, silver nanoparticles are already common in the marketplace in products such as plastics, pastes, textiles, soaps and edibles.

As a cancer researcher, says Ajay Singh, his goal is to understand cancer’s progression and develop solutions to target cancer cells. However, the question ultimately becomes how to precisely deliver treatment to cancer cells, so that patients experience maximum drug efficiency with minimal side effects. 

“Nanoparticles can be so important in the delivery,” he says. So he recruited a postdoctoral fellow with a background in nanotechnology and whose doctoral thesis focused on silver. 

Knowing that silver nanoparticles were already being used in topical applications and that they were approved for use on skin, Ajay Singh wanted to test to see if they could protect skin cells from UV radiation damage. 

“I approached Seema to see how these nanoparticles worked,” he says.

Their efforts led to several important findings, which they have patented. They also won funding to continue their research from both the National Cancer Institute and the Abraham Mitchell Cancer Research Fund.

In collaboration with biochemical engineer Srinvas Palanki, Ph.D., the Singhs began testing novel methods for the synthesis of silver nanoparticles using plant-derived compounds. 

Their preliminary research yielded several groundbreaking results — most recently showing that topical application of silver nanoparticle-based cream dramatically decreased the incidence of skin cancer in mice exposed to UV radiation.

“Our particle was not only protecting at the biological level. It was also repairing the damage,” says Ajay Singh.  

The Singhs call the results “very promising,” but add that they need to continue evaluating the particle for toxicity.  

“Although there were no obvious signs of toxicity in the control group, we need to do more extensive study prior to routine human application,” Ajay Singh says. 

The Singhs also tested their silver nanoparticles against the active ingredients (titanium dioxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles) in sunscreen products that are currently on the market and claiming to filter UVB rays.

What the Singhs found in these comparison studies was both unexpected and unprecedented. On a reflective level, all tested nanoparticles were comparable; in other words, all particles reflected UV rays as indicated. On a cellular level, however, only silver nanoparticles repaired DNA damage caused by UV radiation. Other nanoparticles actually “enhanced the damage” caused by UV rays. These new findings are being published in the scientific journal, Cancer Letters.

The Singhs and their team member, Nikhil Tyagi, are presently writing a business proposal to seek funding, which, among other things, will enable them to conduct further toxicity tests to evaluate if the silver nanoparticles get into the bloodstream and cause any long-term toxicity. If they do not permeate the bloodstream, then it is possible that Tatva Biosciences’ sun protection cream could be in the marketplace within two or three years. 

Developing a product that can prevent and repair damage is important, Ajay Singh says, since more than 2 million new cases of skin cancer are detected every year in the U.S.

Since most skin cancers are not melanoma, and thus not always life threatening, some people may not regard skin cancer as a major problem, But, says Ajay Singh, from a patient’s perspective, any cancer diagnosis is psychologically damaging, and it’s hard to distinguish among skin cancers and identify those that are aggressive.

“Prevention is always better than carrying this worry or needing to undergo treatment at a later stage,” he says.

Tatva Biosciences is now moving into its first physical home at the Coastal Innovation Hub on the University of South Alabama’s main campus. Tyagi, who will be the principal investigator for the business, is at work on a proposal to win funding for the new business, to supplement the $225,000 in NCI funding. Sanjeev Srivastava is also on the Tatva team.

Having a team in place is critical to success, says Ajay Singh.

“I am not good at everything; as a researcher, I focus on developing ideas and letting my team members take charge of taking those ideas forward and developing their own ideas as well. That’s the key to making progress and ultimately developing our inventions into something that would impact human health.”

Mitchell Cancer Institute has spun off six companies since its founding in 2002. Here’s a quick summary of the other five:

  • Creatics, based in Boston, works toward early detection of pancreatic cancer.
  • ADT Pharma, based in Orange Beach, works with Ras inhibitors to treat cancer.
  • PDEi Pharma, in Mobile, works toward phosphodiesterase inhibitor compounds to treat cancer.
  • Swift Biotech, based in Mobile, works toward early detection of ovarian and endometrial cancers.
  • Canal House Biosciences, based in Mobile, works toward using novel assays and reagents to interrogate DNA damage and repair.

Amy Delcambre is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She is based in Mobile.

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