A Crystal Clear Perspective on Drug Discovery: How Larry DeLucas is Improving Medications in the Fight Against Cancer

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Dr. Larry DeLucas leads with what he’s most excited about — protein crystallography — casually neglecting to mention the fact that he’s been to outer space.

“My expertise is protein crystallography; I determine the structure of proteins,” DeLucas said. “From that, you can design small molecule drugs to interact with proteins and fight diseases.”

Of course, it was his work in protein crystallography that led him to become an astronaut in the first place. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is also protein crystallography that led DeLucas to Predictive Oncology, where he has become an integral part of the team’s mission to eliminate cancer as VP of Operations and President of the Predictive Oncology subsidiary Soluble Biotech.

Blasting off from the laboratory into outer space


DeLucas’s professional career has long focused on studying protein crystals, and he would go to any lengths to get the answers his work demands. That includes blasting off into space aboard the Columbia Space Shuttle in 1992.

“My career as an astronaut began because of a scientist that kind of showed me with a salt crystal they could grow a more perfectly formed one without gravity, DeLucas said. “Protein crystals also grow like small molecules, so we wanted to try and do this with protein crystals.

“Without gravity you can grow a more perfect crystal and after exposing the crystal to an X-ray beam, you are often able to see more detail in the structure, like small hydrogen atoms,” he explained. He immediately resolved to try and go to space to examine how protein crystals form in zero gravity.

After several failed application attempts, DeLucas was finally accepted by NASA to travel into space to conduct his experiment. He spent the next two years preparing for a scientific exploration journey. The trip included not only his experiment on protein crystallization, but more than 30 other research experiments that other astronauts would be performing.

For his experiment, DeLucas brought along 30 proteins. Based on experiments on Earth, he expected them to begin growing in 12 hours or less, but after a full 24 hours in space, there was nothing. Two days passed, then three, and DeLucas began to get worried. 

“I thought it was going to be embarrassing!” he said. “But on the fourth day I could see little tiny sparkles and I knew they were growing.”

Through his research, DeLucas concluded that proteins grow more slowly in space. Those that would need only a few days to grow fully would require five to six weeks in space, he said. The result was unexpected, and a bit nerve-wracking, but well worth it. Although they took longer to grow, the crystals were indeed optimal for advancing his research — the same research that would lead him to work with Predictive Oncology to eliminate cancer.

“When you perform an experiment in space, it makes you think differently. As scientists always want a creative part of mindset,” DeLucas said. “Space really pushed me to do that and think about how to cope with a unique environment. That experience helped my career and helped me today to accomplish novel goals here with Predictive Oncology.”

A simple question leads to big answers


Despite his out of this world experience, DeLucas still describes his work in protein crystallography in simple terms, eschewing glamour for practicality. Although he has five degrees, including a Ph.D in biochemistry, and has published 164 peer-reviewed articles in his career, DeLucas boils it down to plain language.

“To determine the structure of a protein, you need it in high concentrations to crystallize,” he said. But, he explained, there’s just one problem with that: “If it’s not soluble or tends to aggregate at higher concentrations, it won’t produce a well-formed crystal thereby preventing you from determining the structure.”

Since outer space isn’t always a feasible option, growing optimal crystals on Earth remained a high priority; it was this simple issue that DeLucas set out to solve next. He figured that by improving the solubility and stability of the proteins he was working with, he’d be able to better study them. In his research, he came across substances known as “excipients.” These inactive substances effectively act as a medium or carrier for proteins, improving their solubility.

“We found these additives to stabilize proteins and solubilize them,” DeLucas said. “Most crystallographers today don’t know what excipients are, but we used them to improve the solubility of the proteins, which we were later able to crystallize.”

Of course, with every solution there comes a new problem. DeLucas noted that the process was labor intensive and required a trial and error approach to determine the right combination of proteins and excipients. That’s when a colleague introduced him to an automated process.

“A colleague of mine, Bill Wilson, who was chair of the Chemistry Department at Mississippi State University, developed a concept that would allow us to quickly analyze protein solubility in different solution conditions and formulations.”

Together, DeLucas, Wilson and DeLucas’ graduate student David Johnson, then developed a machine that would rapidly measure protein solubility. It was the tool DeLucas needed to streamline his work with the excipients. He was on track to create a pure crystal, he thought, and find a way to get a better-than-ever look at the structure of any given protein.

Tapping into the market opportunity of soluble proteins


What had started as a bid to better elucidate the structure of proteins had developed into a wholesale effort to improve drug discovery processes across the board. Solubility is not only important for the crystallization of proteins, but it is also critical for bioavailability of medications like vaccines and antibiotics.

“This technology was very useful for improving the crystals, but I also realized there was a commercial market in terms of protein therapeutics, doing things like solubilizing and stabilizing proteins like vaccines and antibodies,” DeLucas said.

The global protein therapeutics market is worth an estimated $290 billion dollars and DeLucas and team had discovered a way to anticipate the optimal combinations of proteins and excipients to create more soluble, stable and therefore, more effective drugs and vaccines. With this process, he said, they could expedite drug discovery and keep costs down, getting medications to clinical trials more quickly and helping the effective, safe ones reach patients sooner. It also enabled them to more efficiently study proteins that, while highly important, proved challenging and costly to research previously.

“The nice thing about this tech is that unlike what other companies use to determine protein interaction we can also use it for membrane proteins,” DeLucas said. “Membrane proteins represent about 60% to 70% of past drug targets, and 60% to 70% of future drug targets too.

“They’re important, but the difficulty is in getting them soluble,” he added. “The problem is you have to make up multiple solutions, make up a formulation with different concentrations of proteins, measure each one … it can take up to a half a day to determine for one condition.”

Soluble Biotech’s unique approach, which relies on a specialized chromatography column, enables analysts to determine the same information in just 30 minutes. This is made possible by an artificial intelligence (AI) neural network that is able to predict the optimal formulations for medications and vaccines. Human analysts can then validate the neural networks predictions, immediately narrowing down the potential combinations for optimally effective drug formulations.

“So we can provide our customers with the top five formulations for a given condition,” DeLucas said. “Through this process, any formulation that’s predicted will give good solubility, we evaluate it for stability. We give customers a stable formulation that provides maximum solubility.”

Leading Soluble Biotech into a cancer-free future


Under DeLucas’s leadership, Soluble Biotech has moved into a research park in Birmingham, Alabama and is constructing a Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) facility to help support clients immediately enter their protein therapeutic into clinical trials, expediting the time it takes them to reach U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval. 

But Soluble Biotech is only one piece of the Predictive Oncology puzzle when it comes to eliminating cancer. Along with the teams at TumorGenesis and Helomics, the work at Soluble Biotech will be used to improve cancer drug discovery and optimize healthcare plans to improve treatment outcomes. Protein crystallography has already brought Larry DeLucas to space; next, it could help bring him and the team at Predictive Oncology to the cusp of eliminating cancer. 


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Lawrence J. DeLucas, Ph.D

Predictive Oncology
President, Soluble Biotech
At Predictive Oncology

Dr. DeLucas is the Vice president of Operations for Predictive Oncology and President and co-founder of Soluble Biotech, Inc. DeLucas is currently working to complete development of GMP facilities at Soluble Biotech and at TumorGenesis. In addition, he oversees Soluble Biotech’s solubility and stability contracts for numerous pharmaceutical/biotech companies.

Before Predictive Oncology

From 1981-2016 Dr. DeLucas was a faculty member at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) where he served as a Professor in the School of Optometry, Senior Scientist and Director of the Comprehensive Cancer Center X-ray Shared Facility, and Director of the Center for Structural Biology. Dr. DeLucas received five degrees from UAB culminating in a Doctor of Optometry degree and a Ph.D. degree in Biochemistry. He also received honorary Doctor of Science degrees from The Ohio State University, Ferris State University, the State University of New York (SUNY), and the Illinois College of Optometry. He has published 164 peer-reviewed research articles in various scientific journals, co-authored and edited several books on protein crystal growth and membrane proteins and is a co-inventor on 43 patents involving protein crystal growth, novel biotechnologies and structure-based drug design. DeLucas was a payload specialist NASA astronaut and member of the 7-person crew of Space Shuttle Columbia for Mission “STS-50”, called the United States Microgravity Laboratory-1 (USML-1) Spacelab mission. Columbia launched on June 25, 1992, returning on July 9.  In 1994 and 1995, Dr. DeLucas served as the Chief Scientist for the International Space Station at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. In 1999, Dr. DeLucas was recognized as one of the scientists who could shape the 21st century in an article published by “The Sunday Times” of London titled “The Brains Behind the 21st Century.”  In 2004, he was recognized as a Top Ten Finalist for the Entrepreneur of the Year award from the Birmingham Business Journal. 

“ Soluble Biotech is continually demonstrating to pharmaceutical and biotech companies the significant value of its novel HSC technology for optimizing protein therapeutic formulations to treat a variety of chronic and infectious diseases. ”

  • Five degrees from Univ. of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB): B.S. Chemistry, M.S. Chemistry, B.S. Physiological Optics, O.D. Optometry, Ph.D Biochemistry

  • Published 164 peer-reviewed research articles in various scientific journals

  • 1993-2016: Director of the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center X-ray Shared Facility, and Director of the Center for Structural Biology

  • NASA Astronaut, flew on Columbia Space Shuttle

  • 1994-1995: Appointed Chief Scientist for the International Space Station at NASA HQ
  • Arlette Uihlein, MD, FCAP, FASCP

    Dr. Arlette Uihlein is Senior Vice President of Regulatory Affairs and Quality for Predictive Oncology and Site Leader of Helomics, serving as the Vice President of Operations, Pathology Services and Medical Director of Helomics® Clinical and Research Labs since 2011. Dr. Uihlein is Board Certified in Anatomic and Clinical Pathology, Cytopathology and Family Medicine. Dr. Uihlein completed her Pathology Residency at Allegheny General Hospital, where she served as Chief Resident in Pathology and completed Fellowships in Cytopathology and Surgical Pathology. During that time, she conducted extensive clinical research involving molecular pathology diagnostic and predictive markers, imaging of solid tumors, and novel applications of cellular tumor markers. While serving as Medical Director at Helomics, a CLIA and New York State certified lab, Dr. Uihlein has published research in molecular assay development, lab automation, and tissue and cell processing. She is a Designated Civil Surgeon for the U.S. Dept. of Justice and a certified Medical Review Officer for the Department of Transportation. She is a Fellow of the College of American Pathologists and the American Society of Clinical Pathology, NYSDOH Certificate Qualified, and a member of ASCO.

    “ At Helomics we’re delivering better-informed decision making saving pharma time and money, while providing cancer patients with appropriate therapies.”




    Medical College of Ohio
    Doctor of Medicine

    Baldwin-Wallace University
    BS, Biology

    Richard Gabriel, BS, MBA

    Predictive Oncology
    Site Leader, TumorGenesis
    At Predictive Oncology
    My role at Predictive Oncology is to bring the business sense to managing Research and Development programs at all our companies. To seek new ways and opportunities to commercialize exciting new technologies that we have built, licensed, acquired, or are developing through our own research and development. The success of any company is to get the research off the bench and to the customers. That is what I do at POAI and help the other companies as well.
    Before Predictive Oncology
    Prior to starting his first company in 1984 and registering with the FDA a pilot plant facility to make pharmaceutical actives, Mr. Gabriel managed a $50 million product line for W.R. Grace, developed new marketing and sales strategies for Ventron a Division of Morton Thiokol, research work at Ashland Chemical for pressure sensitive adhesives and plant scale-up. Since then, he ran a genetics company, built three GMP/Research facilities, and helped 5 drugs reach their markets in AIDS and cancer. Real expertise in cGMP process scale-up and compliance. Completely understand the needs of an API manufacturing facility and build processes that are scalable, environmentally acceptable, and safe. 3 FDA inspections with no 483’s, ISO certification, DEA registration, DoD compliance, NCI contractor and inventor. Has also broad-based experience in start-up companies and how to make them operational and profitable. 7 years of Team set-up, R&D management, and implementation for 165-person (85 PhD’s and Engineers) company (Pharm-Eco) and lecturer on cGMP and Teams within the Pharmaceutical Industry.

    “ Patients are always first, is our driving force. Oncology is a tough space, and we are determined to bring the best validated science to help cancer patients and as our CEO says, ‘Eliminate Cancer.’ That takes teamwork and a lot of smart hard-working people, our team members at POAI are up to the challenge. ”



    Suffolk University
    Executive MBA Program

    Ohio Dominican College
    BS, Chemistry

    Ohio State University
    Microbiology and Virology

    University of Cincinnati
    Associates Degree, Liberal Arts

    Mark A Collins, Ph.D

    Predictive Oncology
    Chief Technical Officer, Helomics
    At Predictive Oncology

    Mark is currently Chief Technical Officer at Predictive Oncology. Using the power of AI, Mark is responsible for leveraging Helomics’ vast repository of physical and digital tumor samples, to build multi-omic predictive models of tumor drug response and outcome. Such models can be applied to the discovery of new targeted therapies for cancer as well as used in clinical decision support to help oncologists individualize  treatment.

    Before Predictive Oncology

    Dr. Mark Collins embarked on a career in the pharmaceutical industry following his postdoctoral work. Pursuing a passion for both biology and computing, Mark has held multiple executive roles in a variety of discovery, informatics and bioinformatics functions within global pharma, and founded three startup software companies in the artificial intelligence (AI) machine learning (ML) and drug discovery space. Mark relocated to the USA in 2001 to work for Cellomics (now part of Thermo Fisher Scientific), where he played a pivotal role in establishing the High-Content cell analysis market, building, and commercializing several key informatics and bioinformatics products.

    Since leaving Thermo Fisher, Mark has focused on developing and commercializing informatics solutions for clinical and translational research, specifically in the specimen tracking, ‘omics data management and NGS analysis space, through key roles at BioFortis, Global Specimen Solutions and Genedata

    “ I have been pursuing a vision since the late 1990s that AI will help deliver better patient therapies. I firmly believe at POAI we will deliver on that vision. ”

    University of Surrey, UK
    Ph.D., Microbiology

    University of Wolverhampton, UK
    Undergraduate Degree, Applied Science

    Bob Myers, BBA, MBA

    Predictive Oncology
    Site Leader, Skyline Medical
    At Predictive Oncology

    Executive Officer, Compliance Officer, Corporate Secretary, and member of the Senior Leadership Team. Responsible for Finance, Administration, Human Resources, Investor Relations, and IT. Skyline Medical Site Leader.

    Before Predictive Oncology

    Numerous years as CEO/Controller consultant including medical devices companies. Executive positions with CES Computer Solutions, Computer Accomplishments, Hi-Tech Stationary & Printing, Capital Distributors Corp, International Creative Management American Express, Showtime Entertainment and public accounting with Laventhol & Horwath, CPA’s.

    “ It’s a privilege to work with a highly talented team to pursue oncology advances, while protecting and increasing shareholder value. ”


    Adelphi University
    MBA, Finance

    Hofstra University
    BBA, Public Accounting 

    J. Melville (“Mel”) Engle, BS, MBA

    Predictive Oncology
    At Predictive Oncology
    Mr. Engle became POAI’s CEO in 2021 and was appointed to the POAI Board of Directors in 2016. He was elected Chairman of the Board in 2020.
    Before Predictive Oncology

    Between 2012 and 2021, he was CEO of Engle Strategic Solutions, a consulting and coaching company focused on CEO issues. From 2009 to 2012, he was CEO and Chairman of Thermogenesis, a cell separation company. From 2002 to 2007, he was Regional Head/Director, North America at Merck Generics and CEO of Dey Laboratories, a respiratory company. From 1996 to 2001, he was CEO and Chairman of Anika Therapeutics, an orthobiologics company. From 1980 to 1995, he was with Allergan, Inc., an eye and skin care company, where he served as CFO, Managing Director (living in Toronto), and other positions with the firm.

    “ Eliminating cancer is our overall goal.  This is not an easy task.  We are working hard every day to make this happen, using our novel technology and talented team of employees. ”


    University of Southern California
    School of Business
    MBA, Finance

    University of Colorado Boulder
    BS, Accounting