A virus test developed at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) to help prevent a common cat cancer won the top $25,000 prize at the Arkansas Governor’s Cup Collegiate Business Plan Competition on March 31.
Shana Owens, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the UAMS College of Medicine Department of Microbiology and Immunology, invented the test as her project in the UAMS Translational Research Institute’s Health Sciences Innovation and Entrepreneurship (HSIE) Training Program. The Governor’s Cup victory was followed by two more in the national Heartland Challenge April 16, bringing the total prize amount to $29,500.
The program, conducted in partnership with the University of Arkansas Sam M. Walton College of Business, provides two years of training to postdoctoral fellows selected through a competitive application process.
After inventing the test, a lateral flow assay that Owens named GammaFlow, she formed a company, GammaVet. Her Governor’s Cup win March 31 was following by a $3,000 Investor Roundtable competition and the $1,500 special award Woman-Run by Wright Lindsey Jennings at the Heartland Challenge.
She and her team will use the prize money to support commercial development of GammaFlow.
Owens was aware that, like humans, cats are susceptible to viruses that cause cancers. Interviews with local veterinarians revealed that gastrointestinal lymphoma, which stems from a virus, is the most common cat cancer they treat. Importantly for Owens’ entrepreneurial goal, there is currently no diagnostic test for Felis catus gammaherpesvirus 1, which causes the deadly cancer of the digestive tract.
In March 2021, Owens first proposed her virus test to program leaders at an HSIE class. By September, she was pitching it to the UAMS Patent Committee, and by November, she had a provisional patent filed on her technology.
“This really snowballed. If you had asked me a year ago if I would be working on an assay for cat right now, I probably would have told you you’re crazy,” Owens said. “Now we’re looking at dimensions for shipping in boxes and thinking about where we would manufacture and store our products.”
Once completed, the rapid test will allow a veterinarian to use a small blood sample to determine within minutes if a cat has the virus that would predispose it to GI lymphoma.
“GI lymphomas are such a big problem that local vets want answers, so they’ve been helping our team develop the prototype,” Owens said.
The GammaFlow prototype received additional help from $2,000 that her team won at a 2021 pitch competition by the Office of Entrepreneurship at the University of Arkansas.
Owens is CEO of GammaVet, whose other founding members are:
- Zach Waldrip, Ph.D., chief scientific officer; HSIE scholar and postdoctoral fellow in the College of Medicine Department of Surgery, Division of Surgery Research.
- Brett LittleJohn, chief finance officer; also director of product development and sourcing at Sam’s Club and an executive MBA candidate.
- Braden Bateman, chief marketing officer; a former John Deere sales representative and a master’s candidate in agricultural economics.
“The HSIE Program has really changed how I view my science,” Owens said. “Learning how to see basic bench science from an entrepreneurial perspective has been an amazing experience.”
Other HSIE trainees have also been part of teams that won recent competitions. They are:
- John Sherrill, Ph.D., MPH, with Horizon Health Solutions, which won $5,000 for third place at the Stu Clark New Venture Championships in Manitoba, Canada; and $3,000 for first place in the elevator pitch competition at the Heartland Challenge. The company is commercializing a software-as-a-service called PriceView, the first of its innovative solutions for pharmacies. Sherrill is a postdoctoral fellow in the College of Medicine Department of Orthopaedic Surgery.
- Emily Darrigues, Ph.D., with CiphrX Biotechnologies, which won $5,000 for fourth place in the Heartland Challenge. The brain cancer diagnostics company has a patent-pending test kit for same-day genetic sequencing within the hospital. Darrigues is a postdoctoral fellow in the College of Medicine Department of Neurosurgery.
The HSIE Program is supported by the UAMS Translational Research Institute, which is funded by a National Institutes of Health Clinical and Translational Science Award through the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.