Upstate startup lands recent NIH grant to develop technology to help patients better tolerate chemotherapy
An Upstate Medical University professor is the lead investigator on a recently awarded National Institutes of Health grant to study how manipulating a gene could help people better tolerate and recover from chemotherapy.
William Kerr, PhD, is a professor of microbiology and immunology, biochemistry and molecular biology as well as pediatrics at Upstate. Kerr has spent much of his career studying the SHIP1 enzyme, which can affect how an immune cell detects and kills cancer cells. He is a co-founder of Alterna Therapeutics, a private biotechnology company. Kerr, Alterna Therapeutics and a Syracuse University professor are the recent beneficiaries of the one-year $225,000 NIH grant.
Kerr said research supported by the grant will be conducted at Upstate and at the Central New York Biotech Accelerator.
“This NIH grant at Upstate advances and showcases SUNY’s enduring commitment to medical discovery and innovation,” said SUNY Chancellor Kristina Johnson. “This research has the potential to impact millions of people whose lives are upended by the devastating effects of chemotherapy. I applaud Dr. Kerr for his leadership on this work that may one day result in better therapeutics for people diagnosed with cancer.”
The project is described this way: “While chemotherapy remains a mainstay in the treatment of cancer, some types of chemotherapy deplete bone marrow stem cells that are responsible for daily production of blood cells. The severely debilitating side effects of chemotherapy on daily blood cell production frequently result in hospitalization and treatment delays, and may compel dose reductions that compromise drug efficacy, with potentially fatal consequences. This project will develop a novel technology to significantly improve blood cell recovery following chemotherapy, thus reducing healthcare costs for cancer patients and saving lives.”
Kerr’s initial study of this topic involved modulating the activity of the SHIP1 enzyme to enhance blood cell recovery after radiation exposure. Papers describing these findings have been cited in ongoing research more than 100 times and featured by the editors at the journal Science, he said. In 2015, Kerr received an investment from SUNY’s Technology Accelerator Fund (TAF) to systematically test more than 100 SHIP1 inhibitors to find the best candidates for a therapeutic product. TAF targets critical research and development milestones – such as feasibility studies, prototyping and testing – which demonstrate that an idea or innovation has commercial potential. Since its launch in 2011, TAF has invested over $2.6 million to successfully advance the commercial readiness of 49 SUNY-developed innovations.
This new study will apply modulating the activity of the SHIP1 enzyme but after chemotherapy rather than radiation, Kerr said.
“We’re very interested in exploring the potential to expand stem cell production to help promote recovery of blood cell populations,” said Alterna Therapeutics co-founder and CEO Chris Meldrum. He noted that Kerr’s breakthrough could be especially helpful to patients who undergo chemotherapy or other treatments that severely deplete or suppress production of blood cells by the bone marrow. Some of those treatments cause severe deficiencies in neutrophil and platelet counts, which can make a patient very sick requiring hospitalization. That in turn can slow down or halt their treatments, which puts the patient at a higher risk for the cancer to return. The discovery from Dr. Kerr’s lab additionally has the potential to be a treatment used in improving blood cell recovery following bone marrow transplant procedures.
“It’s taken us about a year to get some of these grants and now that we have the first one we’ll be applying for others,” Kerr said, noting this is a “phase one grant” to test the initial science and could lead to Phase 2 funding from the NIH for further clinical development and testing.
“I’m excited. This bodes well that the review committees of the NIH see research conducted by Alterna Therapeutics as valuable and thus something that the NIH should support because it could lead to next generation cancer therapies.”