Dr. Laura Kirkman wants to stop the growing problem of drug-resistant malaria. And she hopes to accomplish this with the help of the Tri-Institutional Therapeutics Discovery Institute (Tri-I TDI).
In her lab at Weill Cornell Medicine, the molecular parasitologist focuses on how to treat parasites, such as one that causes malaria in humans. The parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, is resistant to available drugs, including the world’s most powerful antimalarial drugs called artemisinins. It’s a vexing question, but one that she may yet be able to solve. This is thanks to a small molecule her colleague Dr. Gang Lin discovered that they together—with the drug-discovery incubator Tri-I TDI’s help—are trying to develop into a new class of drugs to fight the disease.
“I didn’t seek out drug discovery, but working at Weill Cornell Medicine and listening to presentations by people like Gang on new targets they are working on made me think about new ways to approach drug-resistant malaria,” said Dr. Kirkman, a physician-scientist and assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases who highlighted her work on Oct. 2 at the institution’s second annual Dean’s Symposium on Opportunities for Entrepreneurship and Academic Drug Development. “It was really exciting when the Tri-I TDI picked up the project, and its leadership has been a critical part of the project's success. I never would have done any drug discovery if it wasn't for the Tri-I TDI.”
The goal of the symposium—hosted at Weill Cornell Medicine’s Belfer Research Building, featuring keynote speaker Dr. Kevin Tracey, president and CEO of The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, and executive vice president of research at Northwell Health—was to highlight the resources available to investigators to help them turn their research findings into new treatments and therapies for patients. For Dr. Kirkman’s project, medicinal chemists at the Tri-I TDI—a joint venture between Weill Cornell Medicine, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and The Rockefeller University, along with Takeda Pharmaceutical Company, Ltd.—are working to optimize the potency and drug-like properties of the small molecule Dr. Lin, an associate professor of research in microbiology and immunology, discovered. Dr. Kirkman is then taking the enhanced molecule back to the lab to test against the malaria parasite in mice, with the ultimate goal of moving it forward into human clinical trials.
If successful, Drs. Kirkman and Lin’s compound could help prevent the nearly half a million deaths from malaria each year in tropical regions such as sub-Saharan Africa. That potentiality is precisely why Weill Cornell Medicine has invested in drug discovery.
“Weill Cornell Medicine has made a concerted effort in the past several years to foster a culture of entrepreneurship and speed drug development on campus,” said Dr. Augustine M.K. Choi, the Stephen and Suzanne Weiss Dean of Weill Cornell Medicine. “We all know how difficult it is for faculty members to make a discovery and somehow, some way, get it to our patients. To support this cause, we have encouraged entrepreneurship among our investigators, many of whom have benefited from generous philanthropy from donors and our board members.”
Weill Cornell Medicine’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is designed to support investigators as they translate research discoveries into new treatments and therapies, at every stage of that process. The Tri-I TDI, led by Dr. Peter T. Meinke, aims to expedite early-stage small molecule and antibody drug discovery into innovative new treatments. Building on that work, Bridge Medicines, directed by Dr. William Polvino, provides principal investigators with financial, operational and managerial support to move their research from Tri-I TDI’s proof-of-concept into human clinical trials.
Working in tandem with Tri-I TDI and Bridge Medicines is the Office of BioPharma Alliances and Research Collaborations, led by managing director Larry Schlossman. The office is dedicated to fostering business development and translational research alliances for Weill Cornell Medicine’s investigators. For projects that aren’t quite ready for industry alliances or the Tri-I TDI, the office’s Daedalus Fund for Innovation provides, on a competitive basis utilizing stringent investment-grade criteria, translational funding of $100,000 or $300,000 over a period of one or two years, respectively, to Weill Cornell Medicine investigators. This funding is intended to help them advance select projects to become more attractive to industry as candidates for licensing and business development. The office also manages the BioVenture eLab, launched in 2017, which provides educational resources to interested students, trainees and faculty to help them develop entrepreneurial skills, provide potential career alternatives and create their own start-up companies, thereby helping to seed the next generation of leaders in the life-science industries.
To help investigators commercialize their science and protect their inventions, the Weill Cornell Medicine office of Cornell University’s Center for Technology Licensing (CTL), directed by Dr. Brian Kelly, provides services to the inventors for intellectual property protection.
At the symposium, Dr. Dan Landau, an assistant professor of medicine and of physiology and biophysics at Weill Cornell Medicine and a core faculty member of the New York Genome Center, highlighted his research discoveries that have advanced through collaborations established by the Office of BioPharma Alliances. His most recent project uses state-of-the-art machine learning applied to DNA sequencing technologies to monitor the evolution of tumor cells in real time, which will allow oncologists to determine how well a patient’s treatment is progressing and to make informed therapeutic adjustments.
“The resources available through the Office of BioPharma Alliances enable us to engage and initiate discussions with venture capital groups to help bring this transformative technology to the bedside as fast as possible,” said Dr. Landau, who is a member of the Sandra and Edward Meyer Cancer Center at Weill Cornell Medicine.
For researchers who are more experienced in the lab or at the patient’s bedside than navigating the process of commercializing a new drug, Weill Cornell Medicine’s entrepreneurship ecosystem is crucial in facilitating the necessary next steps for advancing a new treatment from a promising, initial concept.
“Drug discovery really benefits from academic–industry partnerships as larger companies step away from anti-infectives in general and especially for diseases such as malaria,” Dr. Kirkman said. “It's up to academic researchers to step up and provide compounds to take to the pipeline."