Dr. Augustine M.K. Choi, interim dean of Weill Cornell Medicine (first from left), and Larry Schlossman, managing director of BioPharma Alliances and Research Collaborations at Weill Cornell Medicine (second from left), join the third-round winners of the Daedalus Fund for Innovation. From third from left: Dr. Dolan Sondhi, accepting for Dr. Ronald Crystal; Dr. Stefan Worgall; Dr. Randi Silver; Dr. Edouard Mullarky, accepting for Dr. Lewis Cantley; Dr. Olivier Elemento; Dr. Haiying Zhang; and Dr. Gang Lin. The winners were honored at an event on Nov. 7 in The Starr Foundation-Maurice R. Greenberg Conference Center at the Belfer Research Building.
Seven winners have been selected for the third round of the Daedalus Fund for Innovation awards, an innovative Weill Cornell Medicine program that helps advance promising applied and translational research projects and emerging technologies that have commercial potential. The projects are wide ranging, designed to address patient needs in areas ranging from newborn medicine to cancer and infectious disease, brain injury and chronic illness.
The researchers — Drs. Lewis Cantley, Ronald Crystal, Olivier Elemento, Gang Lin, Randi Silver, Stefan Worgall and Haiyang Zhang — will each receive up to $100,000 for a period of one year to fund proof-of-concept studies that may help translate their early-stage discoveries into effective treatments for patients. The fund’s Scientific Advisory Committee, comprised of seasoned technology analysts from the biopharmaceutical and venture capital industries, selected the projects from 22 applications.
“The most challenging time for translational research is the period after initial discovery, in what is known as the ‘pre-competitive’ space, when investigators need to develop validation data in order to attract partners and investment from industry and/or the venture capital community,” said Larry Schlossman, managing director of BioPharma Alliances and Research Collaborations at Weill Cornell Medicine, who manages the Daedalus Fund. “The Daedalus initiative is designed to bridge the ‘development gap’ by providing philanthropic support at this critical juncture.”
- Dr. Lewis Cantley, the Meyer Director of the Sandra and Edward Meyer Cancer Center and a professor of cancer biology in medicine, is working to develop drug-like small molecules that block anabolic metabolism in triple negative breast cancer and non-small cell lung cancer — two aggressive malignancies with poor prognoses. Targeting serine synthesis could represent an effective treatment strategy for the cancers.
- Dr. Ronald Crystal, chair of genetic medicine, the Bruce Webster Professor of Internal Medicine and a professor of medicine, is working on a gene therapy to prevent the neurodegenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a condition that is strongly linked to repetitive brain trauma often caused by contact sports such as football. At the tissue level, brains affected by CTE accumulate a damaging form of the tau protein. Dr. Crystal is investigating a treatment approach in mice that uses a benign virus to deliver a therapeutic gene into the central nervous system. The gene would instruct neurons to secrete anti-phospho-tau antibodies, which would suppress the spread of toxic tau.
- Dr. Olivier Elemento, a Walter B. Wriston Research Scholar and associate professor of computational genomics in computational biomedicine and of physiology and biophysics, and his team have pioneered an experimentally validated artificial intelligence (AI)-guided approach called BANDIT (Bayesian ANalysis to determine Drug Interaction Targets). BANDIT uses big data to predict which protein targets small molecules will bind to in cells with 90 percent accuracy. This technology may dramatically speed up drug discovery, improve scientists’ ability to determine which diseases a drug would effectively treat, and identifies new ways to use existing drugs through the discovery of new unanticipated targets. Dr. Elemento hopes to expand BANDIT, which uses more than 20 million data points, so that he can identify new small molecules targeting relevant therapeutic targets in oncology, neurological and cardiovascular diseases, and expand the algorithms by integrating new data types into the AI engine.
- Dr. Gang Lin, an associate professor of research in microbiology and immunology, has been working with a class of drugs called proteasome inhibitors, which work to suppress the activity of the proteasome, a critical cell component that breaks down unneeded or damaged proteins and recycles their building blocks. Dr. Lin has developed proteasome inhibitors that target proteasomes in pathogens, but ignore those in humans, to treat bacterial and parasitic infections such as tuberculosis and malaria. He has also developed selective inhibitors for a special kind of proteasome in humans that interact with the immune system, called immunoproteasome, over the standard proteasome. These inhibitors have the potential to treat autoimmune and inflammatory disorders, and transplant rejection. Now, he’s seeking to derive fungal proteasome selective inhibitors to treat deadly fungal infections.
- Dr. Randi Silver, associate dean in the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences and a professor of physiology and biophysics, is studying how to alleviate chronic lung disease of prematurity, which is the most common preterm birth complication and may result, in part, from supplemental oxygen therapy. Dr. Silver will conduct safety and efficacy studies in mice using a chemical compound to see if it stabilizes a critical protein that becomes degraded during supplemental oxygen delivery. She hopes the data will lead to a new area of treatment for at-risk infants in the neonatal intensive care unit.
- Dr. Stefan Worgall, a distinguished professor of pediatric pulmonology and professor of pediatrics and of genetic medicine, is interested in devising a therapeutic strategy that addresses asthma’s underlying cause. Dr. Worgall demonstrated that diseased actions of an enzyme called SPT — which is responsible for synthesizing a key component of cell membranes called sphingolipids — is associated with airway hyperactivity that is a hallmark of asthma. Dr. Worgall plans to evaluate whether stimulating sphingolipid production or specific sphingolipids can be used to treat airway hyper-reactivity.
- Dr. Haiying Zhang, an assistant professor of cell and developmental biology in pediatrics, is focused on developing nanotechnology that incorporates information from membrane-bound “packages” secreted by cells to deliver drugs to specific tissues. The packages, called exosomes, carry proteins and nucleic acids such as RNA or DNA, and circulate through the body to distant tissues. Dr. Zhang and her team will test whether these exosome-nanoparticle hybrids can be used to target specific tissues and demonstrate nanoparticle drug delivery in animal tumor models.