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Georgia State Spin-Off, Inlighta Biosciences LLC, Receives $2 Million Grant To Develop Enhanced MRI Contrast Agents For Liver Cancers And Metastasis


ATLANTA—A local start-up, life sciences company founded by Dr. Jenny Yang, Regents’ Professor of Biochemistry at Georgia State University, has received a $2 million federal grant to develop improved magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) contrast agents for the early detection of liver cancers and other cancers, such as uveal melanoma or eye cancer, that have metastasized to the liver.

Yang, who is also the director of the Center for Diagnostics and Therapeutics, is the principal investigator for the grant from the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) via the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs. The research and development work will be done through a collaboration among startup company Inlighta, Georgia State and Emory University. The focus of the project is on optimizing a novel, protein-based contrast agent called ProCA32, the company’s first candidate for clinical development. Next-generation agents that target cancer cells will also be developed.

The funding will support fine-tuning of in vivo imaging protocols, validating the benefit of the agent and conducting animal toxicology studies needed to support an application to the United States Food & Drug Administration for human clinical trials.

“We are very excited by receiving this Phase II STTR funding to support our Investigational New Drug enabled studies,” Yang said. “Our proposed studies in precision imaging address major medical gaps, including early detection of small lesions and biomarker expression, especially for high-risk patients, and monitoring the dynamic changes of biomarkers during disease progression and following therapeutic treatment. Success in our proposed studies will have immediate clinical implications in the diagnosis of liver metastasis from various cancers, primarily liver cancer, and other liver diseases’ accurate staging and follow-up of high-risk patients, evaluating treatment effect and image-guided interventions. We are also very grateful for the previous support from Georgia State, Georgia Research Alliance and funding of STTR Phase I from the National Cancer Institute.”  

The innovative design of ProCA32 allows it to bind tightly with two gadolinium (Gd3+) ions, resulting in a 10-fold increase in relaxivity and significantly enhanced MRI image contrast compared to conventional MRI contrast agents.

Yang has previously conducted preclinical studies in collaboration with clinicians and other researchers, including Drs. Hans Grossniklaus and Pardeep Mittal at Emory, investigating uveal (eye) cancer, which is treatable in the eye but often fatal if it metastasizes to the liver. In rodents, conventional contrast agents are unable to detect liver tumors smaller than 1 cm, while ProCA32 has detected liver tumors as small as 0.24 mm. By detecting tumors earlier, clinicians will be able to pursue better treatment options for their patients and potentially improve their odds of recovery.

Yang has also found ProCA32 can be modified to detect other types of cancers, as the contrast agent may be linked with a receptor-targeting moiety so that it can bind to disease biomarkers such as CXCR4 on liver tumors, HER2 on breast tumors and collagen at liver fibrosis. Further modifications of the agents will allow for mapping of heterogeneously expressed biomarkers that are often missed by blind biopsy, enabling early detection and characterization of metastatic tumors and distinguishing among different types of liver metastases (nodular or invasive).

Georgia State, in downtown Atlanta, is rapidly becoming a hub for research in the Southeast, and administrators at Georgia State are focused on providing a supportive environment for basic and applied research and translational studies aimed at developing marketable products.

“Supporting innovative and entrepreneurial Georgia State investigators’ efforts to access funds critically needed to advance early-stage technology toward the market is a high priority for Georgia State,” said Dr. James Weyhenmeyer, vice president for research and economic development at Georgia State. “We expect a substantial increase in the number of Georgia State investigators applying to the small business research programs sponsored by NIH and other federal agencies to support the further development of their technology.”

For more information about Inlighta Biosciences LLC, visit