June 27, 2022—(BRONX, NY)—Scientists, venture investment firm leaders, and industry stakeholders gathered on Tuesday, June 7 to attend Albert Einstein College of Medicine’s inaugural Therapeutics Venture and Pitch Competition. The event, organized by Einstein’s office of biotechnology and business development, featured three research teams presenting their novel therapeutic approaches for potential investment and development. The day culminated in the announcement of the winning proposal, which was selected by representatives from the three biomedical and/or life science investment firms that co-sponsored the program: Orange Grove Bio, AlleyCorp, and Alexandria Venture Investments.
“We were immensely pleased to have the opportunity to showcase Einstein’s research excellence and support the entrepreneurial spirit among our faculty,” said Janis Paradiso, M.B.A., C.L.P., director of Einstein’s office of biotechnology and business development. “The strength of all the proposals is a testament to the exceptional research conducted at Einstein and the commitment of our faculty to ensure their findings are shepherded through the development pipeline.”
The pitch contest was the result of a unique partnership established between Einstein and the three venture investment companies in the fall of 2021. The focus is to support the development of novel therapeutics by the College of Medicine’s researchers. All three companies are dedicated to accelerating the growth of innovative healthcare and life science companies.
The event opened with a welcome from Gordon F. Tomaselli, M.D., the Marilyn and Stanley M. Katz dean at Einstein and executive vice president and chief academic officer at Montefiore Medicine. “Most of the things that Einstein does exceptionally well start at the bench,” he said. “To translate our discoveries into treatments that benefit patients requires partnerships like this.”
The three finalists were chosen by an expert panel of scientists, investors, and drug development professionals based on their submitted applications. Each research team received more than six months of mentorship. Two of the three projects specifically target malignancies and all three are led by members of the National Cancer Institute-designated Montefiore Einstein Cancer Center.
The winning proposal, which will receive $50,000, was:
- Targeting BRAF for Cancer Therapy—Evripidis Gavathiotis, Ph.D.
Mutations in the BRAF gene have been implicated in a range of cancers, including melanoma, colorectal, lung, thyroid, and pancreatic cancers. This oncogenic gene produces an enzyme, also called BRAF, which is a kinase that plays a critical part in a signaling pathway that is the hallmark of many cancers. Existing BRAF kinase inhibitors are not entirely effective to block BRAF kinase because mutant BRAF forms dimers—two kinases joined together—which are resistant to current inhibitors. Dr. Gavathiotis and his team will develop a novel BRAF inhibitor that has been shown to target BRAF monomers and dimers selectively and effectively in melanoma, colorectal, and non-small cell lung cancer cells. This patented technology also provides a framework to discover and develop inhibitors of BRAF dimers in a range of solid tumors and blood cancers that don’t respond or that develop resistance to existing FDA-approved drugs.
Most of the things that Einstein does exceptionally well start at the bench. To translate our discoveries into treatments that benefit patients requires partnerships like this.
Dean Gordon F. Tomaselli, M.D.
The other finalists were:
Developing a Drug for Acute Myeloid Leukemia—David Shechter, Ph.D., Kira Gritsman, M.D., Ph.D., Seiya Kitamura, Ph.D.
Acute Myeloid leukemia (AML) is the second most frequently diagnosed leukemia in adults, and the five-year survival rate patients with AML is only 29%. The only approved treatments are chemotherapy and stem cell transplantation. However, the high likelihood of treatment toxicity means that many patients are not candidates, and the rate of relapse following treatment is high. In leukemia cells, TTLL4 is an enzyme that maintains the expression of key tumor-forming genes, and inactivation of TTLL4 can promote leukemic cells to differentiate or die. The goal of Drs. Shechter and Gritsman’s project is to develop novel small molecules that target TTLL4’sactivity. In collaboration with Dr. Kitamura, they will develop, screen, and test chemical compounds to inhibit the enzyme’s activity in cells and mice to assess their effectiveness in leukemia.
Mimicking Metabolites to Treat Inflammatory Bowel Disease—Sridhar Mani, M.D.
There is no cure for inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Existing treatments are costly, have significant side effects, and are effective for fewer than 50% of patients. Dr. Mani, along with his collaborators, will further advance their discovery of microbial metabolite mimics to develop treatments for IBD. Microbial metabolites result from interactions between the trillions of microbes that live in the gut and host tissues. The team previously discovered that some metabolites reduce intestinal inflammation and colitis-induced cancer. They then created mimics of these metabolites, which were effective in reducing inflammation in mice and human cells. When consumed orally by mice, the mimics were found in the gut and appeared to be non-toxic. The researchers plan to develop more metabolite mimics that can be taken orally or delivered rectally.
The event also included a panel discussion with representatives from the three venture investment firms: Peter Alff, Ph.D., venture partner at Orange Grove, Omar Njie, M.P.H., healthcare investor at AlleyCorp, and Mike Norsen, M.B.A., principal of science and technology at Alexandria Venture Investments and head of Alexandria LaunchLabs at Columbia for Alexandria Real Estate Equities, Inc. The speakers answered questions regarding what they look for in proposals, their institutions’ particular areas of focus, their investment strategies, and trends in the field. Marc Appel, J.D., M.B.A., CEO of Orange Grove, also attended the event, and Whitney Snider, M.D., M.B.A., vice president of science and technology at Alexandria Real Estate Equities, Inc. and Alexandria Venture Investments, participated as a judge. The afternoon ended with a networking event in the LeFrak Lower Lobby.