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Scientists receive $2.6 million grant to develop drug for cancer, autoimmune disease
Partnership among biotech firm, OU-COM and OHIO could spur regional economic growth 


By Andrea Gibson

Dec. 4, 2009


The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded a $2.6 million grant to the Interthyr Corporation to develop a new drug that potentially could treat pancreatic cancer and autoimmune diseases such as diabetes. The project, a partnership with Ohio University (OHIO), received its funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and aims to stimulate economic development in Ohio.

Interthyr CEO Leonard Kohn, M.D., who recently retired as the J.O. Watson Endowed Diabetes Research Chair at the Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine (OU-COM) and Distinguished Senior Research Scientist at the Edison Biotechnology Institute (EBI), will work with an OHIO research team led by Doug Goetz, Ph.D., professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, to explore the potential of the drug. Preliminary lab studies have shown that the drug can slow the growth of cancer cells and effectively treat various autoimmune-inflammatory diseases.

The university is slated to receive $886,695 to support the salaries of research faculty, technicians, students and postdoctoral fellows at work on the project at OU-COM, EBI, the Russ College of Engineering and Technology, and the College of Arts and Sciences.

“This grant is intended to help us develop the drug to the point where it could advance to phase I/II clinical trials for pancreatic cancer, in order to test its safety and efficacy,” Kohn said. “We’d also like to do a combined trial that addresses an autoimmune disease such as colitis, and ideally diabetes.”

The project has generated interest in the research community because of the unexpected connection it draws between autoimmune disease and cancer, said Kelly McCall, Ph.D., co-principal investigator on the grant and OU-COM assistant professor of specialty medicine.

“Some of the molecular mechanisms that play a role in pathological inflammation also play a role in cancer,” McCall explained. “Our research takes a novel approach to therapy by trying to inhibit the environmental induction of disease expression rather than genetics.” 

Physicians are eager for advances in the treatment of pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest forms of the disease. The current gold standard treatment, gemcitibine, only extends life by about two weeks. McCall said the research team garnered a large audience at a recent cancer conference for their presentation on the initial results of the compound’s effectiveness.

“That shows how desperate—and excited—everyone is for a potential new treatment for the disease,” said Goetz.

The research team’s drug may have other possible applications as well, Kohn said. In collaboration with Mitchell J. Silver, D.O. (’89), F.A.C.C., an interventional cardiologist with the Ohio Health Medical Specialty Foundation in Columbus, several members of the team are exploring whether the drug can be used as a diagnostic and therapeutic compound for atherosclerosis.

“This grant is an excellent example of how Ohio University is breaking down academic silos to engage in dynamic interdisciplinary research that can make a true impact on some of our most important health and wellness issues,” said Rathindra Bose, Ph.D., vice president for research, dean of the Graduate College and OU-COM professor of biomedical sciences. “A project like this also can be an important driver of economic development and job creation in our region.”

Other OHIO faculty members involved in the project include Frank Schwartz, M.D.,  professor of specialty medicine, and Ramiro Malgor, M.D., assistant professor of biomedical sciences, at OU-COM, and Mark McMills, Ph.D., and Steve Bergmeier, Ph.D., in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences.

The project also aims to boost economic growth in southeastern Ohio. As part of its federal stimulus funding initiative, the NIH awarded the grant through its Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program. The program supports start-up firms that conduct research that has the potential for commercialization and public benefit.

OHIO has become more competitive for such federal grants since the establishment of the region’s Entrepreneurial Signature Program, TechGrowth Ohio, which was funded by the state of Ohio in 2007, said David Wight, interim director of the OHIO Technology Transfer Office and EBI director. The program provided the resources for EBI to provide direct business assistance to Interthyr and also to hire consultants who specialize in helping scientists write STTR grant proposals and prepare commercialization plans. The consultant’s expertise was an important component in the development of a successful proposal, Wight said.

As part of the regional economic development aims of the project, Interthyr will move into a 779-square-foot wet lab space in the Innovation Center, OHIO’s small business incubator that focuses on biotechnology and high-tech start-up firms. The space was previously occupied by Diagnostic Hybrids, Inc., which has graduated from the Innovation Center and has established a manufacturing facility in Athens. Interthyr initially will employ three staff members at the Innovation Center location, Kohn said.

If the studies are successful, however, more jobs could be generated—both here and in northeast Ohio—when the research moves into early-stage clinical trials for safety and efficacy, Kohn added. Interthyr also will work with Ricerca Biosciences in Concord, Ohio, on aspects of the project, which could preserve and increase jobs in that region, he noted.

In addition to its economic development benefits, the project reflects synergies among researchers at OU-COM, EBI, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the Russ College of Engineering and Technology. Faculty from these areas make up OHIO’s new master of science in biomedical engineering program, which is led by Goetz. The program’s first graduate, Anthony Schwartz, was the lead author on a published scientific paper that described the drug’s effect on cancer. 

In May 2010, the medical and engineering colleges will celebrate the grand opening of a new joint research and teaching facility, the Academic & Research Center (ARC), in which the research team and other faculty members will be housed. The $30 million building primarily has been funded through donations from the Osteopathic Heritage Foundation, Marilyn and Charles Stuckey Jr. and other friends and alumni of OU-HOM and OHIO. The new laboratory space in the ARC will provide a home for interdisciplinary collaborative research, including this project and others focusing on diabetes and infectious diseases.

The Interthyr Corporation was established in June 2000 as part of an Ohio Technology Action Fund (TAF) award to Kohn and OHIO. Its initial goal, to help develop the biotechnology and job base in southeast Ohio and Athens by collaborating with Diagnostic Hybrids, Inc. to commercialize better diagnostic assays for autoimmune thyroid disease, was cited in 2004 as one of the most successful TAF projects awarded, Kohn said.


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