Tufts Medical Center Molecular Oncology Research Institute (MORI) Investigator Guo-fu Hu, PhD, and his world-renowned angiogenin research team may be on the doorstep of a landmark scientific breakthrough.
Angiogenin, a protein found in the blood stream, is a significant contributor to the growth and multiplication of cancer cells. Normal cells produce a small amount of angiogenin, but tumor cells, particularly those of prostate cancer, leukemia and glioma, produce a great deal more.
Now, Hu and his laboratory have become the first to identify angiogenin receptors, molecules that send chemical signals to cancer cells, directing them to rapidly grow and divide. Blocking these receptors would result in a groundbreaking discovery of how to slow or even stop the development and spread of cancer cells.
Reaching that final milestone requires substantial investments in time, staff and money. Enter Pfizer, Inc., the world’s largest pharmaceutical company. In January, Hu’s project proposal, “Development of angiogenin receptor antibodies as prostate cancer therapeutics” became just one of six proposals accepted for development by Pfizer’s highly-selective Boston Center for Therapeutic Innovation (CTI) program, since its inception last June. Working with Pfizer scientists, Hu and his research team will have access to the resources and funding they need to achieve their goal.
“This will be a true partnership between Dr. Hu’s lab and the Boston CTI scientific team,” said Pfizer Research Fellow at CTI-Boston Dulce Soler, PhD. “We are excited to join forces with Dr. Hu to deliver a first-in-class biotherapeutic for the treatment of cancers for patients that are waiting for effective new treatments.”
The Pfizer CTI program is designed to bridge the gap between academic medical centers and successful pharmaceutical companies. Scientific research often takes a very long time, sometimes even decades, to reach the clinical trial stage. By facilitating a direct collaboration, Pfizer aims to drastically reduce the amount of time needed to turn drug discovery and development into new medications for patients. Pfizer recognized that the academic medical center community, home to many of the world’s most intelligent and innovative researchers, was a clear partner to successfully produce and market the next generation of life-saving medicines and therapies.
“The CTI program marries the approaches from academic medical center researchers with the drug development talent that resides in Pfizer,” said Tufts MC Chief Scientific Officer Dick Karas, MD, PhD. “This collaborative work will be reviewed and directed by both sides and we will jointly share innovation throughout the process. It really is a highly symbiotic relationship.”
Tufts Medical Center is one of six Boston-area academic medical centers to actively participate in the CTI program. To have their research accepted into the program, investigators had to go through an extremely competitive, rigorous review of their work’s potential for success.
In the first stage, Tufts Medical Center scientists were required to make a “pre-proposal” submission, a brief description of their project, on a biotherapeutic (proteins, antibodies or peptides) topic. Our researchers submitted 19 different pre-proposals to a Joint Steering Committee (JSC), made up of three representatives from Pfizer and three from Tufts Medical Center.
After an extensive review, the JSC identified the four strongest submissions to advance to the “full proposal” stage. During this final review, each researcher gave a detailed presentation in front of the JSC and answered a series of questions.
“For Tufts Medical Center to have four proposals reach the final stage is a tremendous achievement for our research program and a testament to the hard work and dedication of our outstanding scientists,” said Director of the Office of Research and Business Development & Industry Translation Nancy Wetherbee. “Pfizer has repeatedly lauded our work, calling the quality and caliber of our innovation among the best in Boston.”
Of the four final Tufts Medical Center proposals, the JSC unanimously chose Hu’s angiogenin research for further support. Pfizer was particularly excited about Hu’s demonstration of an angiogenin receptor because of its potential for leading to an anti-cancer drug and because of the company’s strong background on the biology of angiogenin. Although Hu’s project proposal focused specifically on prostate cancer, the discovery would have implications across multiple cancer types.
The final stage of the development of Hu’s proposal was co-authored by Soler, who was in charge of making sure the scientific evidence was as strong as possible. Access to Tufts Medical Center clinical expertise was critical as well. Paul Mathew, MD, from the Hematology/Oncology Department, was Hu’s clinical collaborator throughout the process and made a significant contribution to the proposal’s proof of mechanism in humans.
“It really was a team effort from the start,” said Hu. “So many people, from both Tufts Medical Center and Pfizer, all came together, worked tirelessly, and brought their complementary skills to the table to help move this project forward.”
Pfizer has pledged up to a $20.5 million investment to fully fund Hu’s research program through early proof of concept in humans. If the project moves forward successfully, Pfizer has committed additional development funding through clinical trials needed to secure FDA approval. Tufts Medical Center and Pfizer will share research and tools throughout the process; Hu’s lab will have access to Pfizer’s wealth of resources, including new technologies, infrastructure and research scientists.
“The early stage development is planned for one or two years, a very short period of time,” said Karas. “But with Pfizer on board from the beginning, it drastically reduces the time necessary to move the research to clinical trials and finally turn it into successful treatment for patients, the ultimate goal of our research programs.”