by Alissa Danckaert Skovira

Cancer is a devastating diagnosis for patients. But it is also an incredibly frustrating disease for doctors to treat. Each tumor is different, and each patient responds differently to treatment. The costs of clinical drug trials are staggering.

Akron’s Onco Solutions LLC has come up with a way to help with that. Dr. Stephanie Ham, CEO, and her team have created a technological 3D model that can screen out many drugs before they advance to the more expensive stages of testing, so pharmaceutical companies have a better sense of which ones they should take to the expensive animal trials stage.

Ham, one of three co-founders of Onco Solutions LLC, knows cancer firsthand.

“Both of my parents are cancer survivors,” she says. “Just seeing them both go through this and the lack of treatments available for cancer, and how much we still don’t know — my engineering brain was kind of triggered by that. That’s what pushed me to get into graduate school and into cancer research.”

Ham earned a Bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Miami University and a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from the University of Akron.

While doing her graduate work, she was lucky enough to work with Dr. Hossein Tavana at UA. Tavana has won numerous awards, including being recognized as one of the Top 13 Young Innovators in Cellular and Molecular Bioengineering and one of the Top 20 Investigative Frontiers in Bioengineering.

Onco Solutions creates 3D polymer models of tumors that replicates the disease-state of cancer. Models make it easier to narrow down the number of drugs that proceed to the next stage.

In other words, Onco makes 3D models of tumors that are “like balls of cancer cells,” Ham explains.

The scientists start with real cancer cells. Then, they mix polymer solutions to create cultures that will grow into imitation cancer cells.

These polymer-based models act just like the patient’s cells. That means researchers can apply cancer drugs to them to find out how effective they’ll be for that patient, which is what sets Onco apart.

“We believe we can double the number of successful animal drug tests in just one-tenth of the time (compared to our competitors) by using this preliminary filter,” Ham says.

Research scientist Emily Mulvany in the Onco Solutions lab. (Photo: Tessa Skovira)

Other 3D models exist on the market, but Ham says these are not being widely adopted by the pharmaceutical industry.

“Our base difference is that we are technology,” Ham explains. “So we address all of the major problems that all of the existing products have issues with. They (other 3D models on the market) lack robustness and reliability.”

Onco Solutions is a young company, having launched in 2016. Dr. Ham finished her Ph.D. in August of 2017 and built the lab with input from Dr. Tavana.

Also on the team is Elyse Ball, a licensed attorney who works at the University of Akron Research Foundation. Ball has helped Onco Solutions secure half a million dollars in local, state, and federal grant funding.

Onco used the funding to acquire a 1,200-square-foot lab space in Bounce, the City of Akron’s innovation hub in the former B.F. Goodrich building. Another grant helped pay for the $200,000 of equipment the lab needed.

“We’re grateful for the space in Bounce,” Ham says. “We’re excited for what’s to come here. There’s a lot of excitement in the air with the renovations and the talk of the future.”

Ham hopes Bounce becomes a place of collaboration and growth to “nurture biotech entrepreneurship.”  

Assembling the lab in Bounce required a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, especially when it came to getting the enormous freezer necessary to store samples up to the eighth floor. Much of the equipment Ham moved herself, but the heavy freezer required the use of the freight elevator, the removal of a door, and the combined efforts of Ham and building facilities manager Tim Stavroff.

That the two of them managed this Herculean task still has Ham shaking her head and laughing at the memory.

“I could not have done it without him!” she exclaims emphatically.

Onco Solutions’ other team members include Darren Hudach, who manages business growth and development, and research scientist Emily Mulvany.

Mulvany joined the team in August of 2018 after they had secured the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Innovation Research Phase 1 grant for $225,000.

Emily was thrilled to join Onco Solution, saying, “This technology makes so much sense. The science behind it—it’s going to work. We make a tumor model that better replicates the disease state of cancer.”  

This story is part of The Devil Strip’s Akropreneurs series, which is made possible by the Burton D. Morgan Foundation and the Fund for Our Economic Future.

Alissa Danckaert-Skovira teaches writing at Kent State University. She has a background in English and history, and she enjoys anything and everything to do with research and writing. Her interests include historic preservation, politics, gardening, and all things Akron.

To learn more about Onco Solutions, visit www.oncosolutionsllc.com.

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