Thursday, April 03, 2014
A University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM) researcher whose work has opened the door to successfully treat cancer with the body’s own immune system was recognized with a 2014 BioMaryland LIFE (Leading Innovative Faculty Entrepreneurs) award. The award is presented every year to researchers who have made groundbreaking discoveries that could someday affect human health.
Eduardo Davila, Ph.D., associate professor of microbiology and immunology at UMSOM and program leader for the tumor immunology and immunotherapy program at the University of Maryland Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Cancer Center, plans to use the $50,000 award for crucial preclinical research to confirm the flexibility of the Anti-Tag Chimeric Antigen Receptor (AT-CAR) system, which he and his colleagues invented. This unique laboratory-made construction of white blood cells (known as T cells) can be targeted to attack virtually any cancer cell it finds, thereby providing the immune system with the flexibility to destroy cancer cells without harming healthy cells.
“Dr. Davila’s research into alternative treatments for cancer is an excellent example of how discoveries in the laboratory can translate into therapies that might vastly improve survival outcomes for patients,” says E. Albert Reece, MD, PhD, MBA, Vice President for Medical Affairs at the University of Maryland and the John Z. and Akiko K. Bowers Distinguished Professor and Dean of the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “With this award, Dr. Davila will be able to more easily make that transition from bench to bedside.”
The cancer research community has witnessed an explosion of interest in targeted immunotherapies, including those that harness both the body’s immune cells and the antibodies that control the attention of those cells. However, immunotherapy has been hampered by the fact that T cells often destroy healthy tissue, and can only recognize a single antibody-triggering antigen, which is a problem because cancer cells can contain many different antigens, all of which need to be “hit” by the T cells. Therefore, there is a growing need for more flexible therapy that will “personalize” therapies to improve patient responses to treatments. The AT-CAR system, by combining the precise targeting capabilities of monoclonal antibodies with the potent cell-killing capabilities of T cells, has the potential to be the first universal immunotherapy platform that can readily adapt to any tumor cell. This new system finally creates a real tailoring of treatments that address both individual patient needs and variable tumor responses to treatment.
In 2012, Dr. Davila’s group demonstrated that AT-CAR therapy can be directed against established tumors in animal models of breast, pancreas, and colon cancer, and B-cell lymphomas. It may, in fact, be able to work against any type of cancer. In addition, unlike other immune cell-based therapy currently in clinical trials, the AT-CAR system has the potential to be safer for patients, because there’s a mechanism to modify the AT-CAR immune response if a patient should develop complications. The AT-CAR system, however, has not yet been tested in human clinical trials.
Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development Secretary Dominick Murray and BioMaryland Center Executive Director Judy Britz, Ph.D., presented the award to Dr. Davila in February 2014. First awarded in 2010, the LIFE prizes are $50,000 grants funded by the BioMaryland Center along with University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University, to help advance research in biotech and biopharma, medical devices, or diagnostics that has the greatest potential for commercial application.
The LIFE prize was awarded as part of a daylong joint meeting of the Johns Hopkins Alliance for Science and Technology Development and the University of Maryland, Baltimore Commercial Advisory Board. It was attended by more than 150 venture capitalists, seasoned biotech entrepreneurs, and business development executives from the biopharma industry. Judging committees evaluated presentations from more than 30 university researchers before selecting the two winners.
“This was once again an outstanding showcase for innovative technologies,” said Phil Robilotto, DO, MBA, assistant vice president, UMB Office of Technology Transfer. “The LIFE award has been a real stimulus for technology development and startup formation at UMB and we are excited about the prospects for this year's winner, Dr. Eduardo Davila, and his important AT-CAR oncology platform.”
Dr. Davila’s work was also recently funded by a TEDCO Maryland Innovation Initiative Award.