Researchers say that DIAC fills a gap in available funding sources, allowing them to collect the data they need to secure peer-reviewed grants.
Over the past five years, immune checkpoint blockade drugs have revolutionized the treatment of cancer. Dr. Tyler J. Curiel, Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at Geisel School of Medicine, says these drugs are the biggest advancement that’s ever been made in cancer treatment.
“Cancers that up until now have been death sentences aren’t being treated with immune checkpoint blockade immunotherapy, they’re being cured,” Curiel says.
Yet, there’s a major problem: immunotherapy only works for 15-20% of patients. Curiel is trying to change that by exploring mechanisms for why immunotherapy only works for a minority of patients. His lab has identified a new target for immunotherapy, PDL2, that hasn’t been targeted by current approved drugs. Curiel hopes to develop a new treatment that’s distinct from but complementary to existing immunotherapy drugs, in order to save lives in the clinic.
During the spring, Curiel and his team participated in the third cohort of the Dartmouth Innovations Accelerator for Cancer (DIAC), joining 14 other teams driving advancements in cancer therapeutics. For the first time, DIAC offered both a ten-week curriculum developed in partnership with Simbex, a medical device and development company, and a five-week track, where participants workshopped their projects with the biotech innovators and investors on the External Review Panel (ERP). At the end of the cohort five teams were awarded funding, with Curiel taking home the top prize of $150,000.
The funds are critical, coming at a time when Curiel’s project needs more data, but is not yet established enough to attract grant funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or other peer-reviewed grant opportunities.
“We will use this money as the seed to get the basic information on where we need to go next. In research and discovery, a hard reality is that when you submit your grants for external funding like NIH, they want to see a lot of preliminary data that will de-risk your project,” Curiel says. “To get to those focused approaches, you have to take these flying leaps of faith. DIAC will fund that early discovery that’s risky.”
That’s made possible, he adds, by the donors who make DIAC a reality and therefore have a direct impact on the future outcomes for cancer patients.
“This is an example of how philanthropy can make a difference in discovery,” Curiel says. “Getting DIAC funding like this puts you on a path to where you can attract the funding and support you need to get these technologies into the clinic.”
Third time participants continue to benefit
Jiwon Lee, Ralph and Marjorie Crump Assistant Professor of Engineering at Thayer School of Engineering, participated in DIAC for the third time. His team, which includes PhD candidates Nicholas Curtis and Steven Ionov, is creating an antibody engineering platform that will allow them to develop novel therapeutic antibodies.
“Thinking about the commercialization of our technology has been the next critical step, and the unique speakers and lessons DIAC brings each cohort have been key to this,” Lee says.
The team received $75,000 in funding during the third cohort. They’ll use that money to develop a therapeutic antibody that could be used to treat multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer.
Experts on the ERP helped guide the team toward that focus.
“The ERP has been essential in providing direction for our technology, particularly due to their expertise in cancer therapeutics and their previous experience with the biotech industry and startups,” Curtis says. “For us, the choice of antibody target was a critical component of our commercialization plan and the ERP helped us navigate our choice of target.”
Access to high-level biotech experts is what continues to bring Lee’s team back to DIAC year after year.
“We and many others have been able to access entrepreneurial expertise and get feedback that we would not have been able to elsewhere,” Lee says. “This very unique environment has been incredibly rewarding and exciting to be a part of.”
Katherine Hixon, PhD, Assistant Professor of Engineering and Clinical Assistant Professor of Orthopaedics at Thayer School of Engineering, enjoyed working closely with the ERP as part of the five week track. Hixon’s team has developed a synthetic bone graft substitute, GYROGEL, that could encourage faster bone growth in cancer patients following surgery.
“We learned from and connected with successful and relevant med tech entrepreneurs, FDA experts, and clinicians who provided critical advice on translating medical technology from lab to market,” Hixon says. Even after the cohort ended, the team met with ERP members to talk about next steps for bringing GYROGEL to market.
Innovation in memory of a beloved professor
Hixon’s team, which includes Peter Bertone, MSE, PhD Student in Biomedical Engineering and Surgical Innovation Fellow and Levi Olevsky, PhD Student in Biomedical Engineering, received a $25,000 Stu Trembly Award, given out in January at the beginning of the cohort.
The award is given in remembrance of Trembly, an engineering professor and alumni who died in 2021. Trembly participated in the first cohort of DIAC, and was planning to participate again.
“The program team all felt that they wanted to do something to honor Stu's entrepreneurial spirit, so we created the Stu Trembly Award,” says Barry Schweitzer '82, Magnuson Associate Director for Strategic Initiatives and director of DIAC. The funds, distributed early on in the program, are meant to help teams secure the resources they need to move their projects ahead over the rest of the cohort.
Hixon’s team used the Stu Trembly funding to purchase a ceramic 3D printer that they used to create novel scaffolds for their product. With that, the team went on to secure another $50,000 in funding, which they’ll use to begin early in vitro and in vivo studies. Hixon plans to begin mouse studies in 2024.
John X.J. Zhang, Ph.D., Professor of Engineering at Thayer, and PhD candidate John Molinski received a $15,000 Stu Trembly award. That funding was critical because it allowed Zhang and Molinski to pivot their concept. They had previously been looking at using a new type of biomarkers for early diagnosis, but Molinski’s work showed the approach had potential as a therapeutic too.
“This novel idea came about, and we didn’t have any funding to explore or prove the concept,” Molinski says. “This money played a critical role getting it from idea to reality.”
Zhang and Molinski went on to receive $35,000 in funding at the end of the cohort. Like Curiel, they hope to leverage that money to advance their innovation enough that they can secure grant funding from NIH, The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and venture capital.
“This critical step fills the missing gap in funding,” Zhang says. “After the research is done in the lab, there’s a long journey toward translation.”
A focus on patient outcomes
Amy Kennedy, PhD student in Biochemistry and Cellular Biology, PhD Innovation Fellow, E.E. Just Fellow, joined DIAC along with faculty advisor Maria Pellegrini, PhD, Research Professor in the Department of Chemistry. Their team is exploring a novel target for cancer therapeutics and received $50,000 in funding.
During the short, Kennedy was able to implement feedback from the ERP and information from the DIAC curriculum immediately, allowing her to move forward more efficiently.
"DIAC helped us view our project from a different perspective and changed the way we thought about our experiments,” Kennedy says.
One of the biggest lessons, however, was to never lose sight of the end goal of cancer innovation: improving patient outcomes.
“It's easy to get discouraged when experiments fail or are stubbornly challenging, but we are doing this to bring a much-needed therapeutic to patients whose lives will be of better quality or even saved by the end result of our research,” Kennedy says. “It gives us renewed motivation to go into the lab and tackle the hard experiments and mountains of data, because somewhere at the end of it is a life-saving drug. And that's worth getting up in the morning for.”