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March 18, 2016
Kathleen Paice Froio, paicek@upstate.edu

Upstate scientist’s work at center of biotech startup

SYRACUSE, N.Y.— Research by Upstate Medical University’s Stewart Loh, PhD, into protein p53—known as the “guardian of the human genome”—and its role in suppressing tumor formation is at the center of a biomedical startup with Rutgers University.

The gene encoding p53 is the most commonly mutated gene in human cancer. A large percentage of those mutations impair the ability of the protein to bind zinc (so-called zinc deficient mutant p53), which is essential for p53 to fulfill its tumor-suppression role.

Loh, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, has been collaborating with Darren Carpizo, MD, PhD, surgical oncologist at the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey. Together they have introduced a better understanding of how molecules can restore proper zinc binding and thus tumor-killing function to mutant p53. As a result of this better understanding, a number of new compounds have been created which enable mutant p53 to bind to zinc and suppress tumors.

The new start up, Z53 Therapeutics, aims to develop these compounds into anti-cancer drugs that target tumors with p53 mutations. The company has exclusively licensed patent applications filed on these compounds from Rutgers and Upstate. It also intends to fund follow-up research at both institutions.

One of the benefits of such institutional and industry arrangements, Loh said, is the research funding that comes to campus.  As federal research funds stagnate, private funding sources, such as from industry, are important for many types of research, especially basic science to move forward.

“This is certainly a milestone in my career,” said Loh.  “It’s a dream of researchers to get their scientific work to the public and impact clinical trials, and that’s what this relationship helps accomplish.”

Scott Macfarlane, director of technology transfer at Upstate, helps formalize relationships like this between companies and researchers, and worked closely with his counterparts at Rutgers to finalize the license to Z53 Therapeutics. “Scientific discovery happens across research teams and across institutions,” he said.  “There are no boundaries for scientific breakthroughs.”

Intellectual property and technology transfer agreements between campuses have only been around since the early 1980s, when federal law changed to allow federally funded research to be owned by campuses.  “The change in federal law has incentivized innovation,” he said.  “It has helped us press the accelerator on bringing science from the bench to the bedside.”

To learn more about Loh’s research into with p53, read Upstate student part of unique approach to cancer research.

Caption: Stewart Loh, PhD, is professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Upstate.

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