WSU researcher targets metastatic cancer

PULLMAN – “Has it spread?”
That has been one of the questions cancer patients most fear to ask—and one their doctors find most difficult to answer. It can be very hard to tell whether cancerous cells have spread from a tumor into other tissues; and once a cancer spreads from its original site, the patient’s odds of survival go way down.

WSU scientist Suzanne Lindsey is taking aim against metastatic cancer as part of a new biotech company, the Recodagen (reh-KOH-da-jen) Corporation. The company’s technology will be based on Lindsey’s discovery of a novel class of protein with the potential to allow doctors to diagnose and target invasive cancer cells.

“Current therapies only target the growth of tumors,” said Lindsey. “They don’t target invasion.”

Yet the most lethal cancers are those that metastasize, or leave their original site and invade other tissues. Invasive cancer cells are resistant to most of the therapies now in use, said Lindsey, and until now it has been very difficult to detect cancer cells that are in the process of spreading to new sites. Being able to target invasive cells as well as cells in the original tumor could provide a potent one-two punch against some of the deadliest forms of the disease. 

The start-up company is part of the Accelerator Corporation, a privately-held biotechnology investment and development company located in the Eastlake section of Seattle. Lindsey, who is an affiliate associate professor in WSU’s School of Molecular Biosciences, joins the Recodagen team as vice president of discovery and will spearhead the company’s research efforts.

The key to Lindsey’s approach is a protein called MIG-7 (Migration Inducing Gene-7) that she discovered in her lab at WSU. MIG-7 appears on the surface of cancer cells just before they migrate out of a solid tumor and while the cells are migrating and invading new tissues.

That makes MIG-7 a potential diagnostic feature—a reliable indicator of whether a tumor has spread or is getting ready to spread. The protein also could serve as a sort of bull’s-eye on migrating cancer cells, giving clinicians a target to aim at as they look for ways to destroy the metastatic cells. Lindsey said she will be working on therapeutic approaches that specifically target cells that have MIG-7.

Lindsey said her work could also lead to the discovery of other potentially useful proteins. She found MIG-7 by taking a closer look at a stretch of DNA that had been dismissed as “junk DNA”— a segment that was previously thought not to code for a protein. Lindsey said the techniques she developed to find and analyze the MIG-7 gene can be applied to finding other important genes that have so far gone undetected.

“We have proprietary methods to identify and characterize such [genes]. With the expertise and backing of Accelerator, we will be able to rapidly demonstrate the proof of concept and develop products that will ultimately benefit human health,” she said.

Howard Grimes, vice president for research and dean of the Graduate School at WSU, praised Lindsey’s work. “We believe Dr. Lindsey’s research has the potential to have a major impact on how cancers are diagnosed and treated in the future. Her technology represents a shift in the gene-expression paradigm and may lead to novel and effective therapeutics in the oncology treatment arena,” he said.

“It is fulfilling to be a part of basic science entering the commercial realm and having an impact on human health,” he added.

“We are very excited about the possibilities this technology offers and pleased to be able to contribute to the economic development of Washington State and the Puget Sound area,” said John Gardner, vice president for Extension and Economic Development at WSU.

About Accelerator Corporation
Accelerator Corporation, founded in 2003, is a privately-held biotechnology investment and development company located in Seattle, Washington, USA. The corporation provides the resources critical to building the next generation of life-enhancing biotechnology companies. These key resources, provided by global life science leaders such as Amgen Ventures, ARCH Venture Partners, OVP Venture Partners, Alexandria Real Estate Equities, Inc., WRF Capital, and the Institute for Systems Biology, include committed capital from top-tier venture capital firms, state-of-the-art facilities, world-class scientific and technical expertise and support, and experienced biotechnology start-up business management and support. For more information, please go to