After two University professors helped develop a new technology designed to treat a severe form of leukemia, they licensed the discovery to a company focused on creating new therapies for cancer patients. Now, that company has made it to the NASDAQ stock exchange.
In recent years, University officials have touted the success of programs designed to help University researchers bring their discoveries to the marketplace. This technology represents one such example.
The new technology, developed in part by Jolanta Grembecka and Tomasz Cierpicki, assistant professors of pathology, was licensed by California-based clinical biopharmaceutical company Kura Oncology in March. The University holds stock within Kura Oncology, according to a press release.
The technology supported by University research specifically works on treating a severe form of leukemia, mixed-lineage leukemia.
Grembecka added that because the type of leukemia they are targeting is so aggressive — only one-third of patients survive more than five years — there is a large need for developing new therapies.
“The technology is (the) development of small molecules, which we believe, or hope, might have a future to repel a certain sub-type of leukemia called MLL leukemia,” she said. “This is an aggressive leukemia which actually affects both children and adults and there’s no cure currently for this type of leukemia.”
Grembecka said to combat the MLL leukemia, the University team’s research designed menin-MLL inhibitors, which can help target the protein interactions responsible for specific types of leukemia.
Leukemia develops in the body partially through protein interactions, rendering molecular inhibitors like the menin-MLL ones important because they can potentially deter these interactions and stop the progress of the disease.
Because of the large role of protein interactions in the disease, Grembecka said finding a correct design for an inhibitor could be a crucial new avenue to treat this previously incurable type of leukemia.
“Based on the known scientific literature, it was recognized that the protein interaction is very relevant to the development of the disease. Invoking this interaction with small molecules, we thought, might be a great idea to inhibit development or progression of the disease,” she said. “We hope that the inhibitors will block progression of the disease.”
Due to the confidentiality of the research, specific information about the treatment’s progress was not available, and the professors involved in the study declined to facilitate interviews with student members of the team.
The University’s partnership with Kura Oncology on the technology has allowed both sides to advance the research, Grembecka said, with both her and Cierpicki working with experts nationwide to continue the research they independently started at the University.
Wellspring Biosciences, Janssen Pharmaceutica and the University of California, San Francisco, were also involved in the development.
In a press release, Ken Nisbet, associate vice president for Tech Transfer, said he was proud of the technology’s progress.
“We’re excited at the impressive progress made by Kura Oncology in such a short period of time,” Nisbet said. “We’re also proud of the contribution of our University of Michigan technology to the treatments being developed by Kura Oncology for acute leukemia and other cancers.”
Grembecka said the relationship with Kura has helped them move forward in their trials for therapy and hopes it will continue to do so as time goes on.
“For the last five years, we’ve been optimizing these molecules to make them stronger and more effective,” she said. “We are deeply involved and get strong support from the company, so I think it works really well and we just hope to continue.”