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Awardees announced for Needleman innovation, commercialization program

DeSelm, DiPersio, Lavine receive support to advance promising therapeutics in cancer, heart disease

by Julia Evangelou StraitJanuary 11, 2024

Matt Miller

Three Washington University researchers developing promising therapeutics for cancer and heart disease have been named the inaugural awardees of an innovative, new program that provides critical funding to help move research toward early-stage clinical trials and commercialization. The awardees — Carl DeSelm, MD, PhD, John F. DiPersio, MD, PhD, and Kory Lavine, MD, PhD — will receive financial support from the university’s recently established Needleman Program for Innovation and Commercialization (NPIC).

A new request for proposals is open through March 15. More information is available here. Login required.

The program is supported by a $15 million commitment from Philip and Sima Needleman, longtime university benefactors. Philip Needleman, PhD, is an emeritus trustee of Washington University and a former head of what was then the Department of Pharmacology at the School of Medicine from 1976-89. He also had a long and successful career in the pharmaceutical industry, where he developed new drugs including the blockbuster Celebrex, which has been widely prescribed to treat osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and similar inflammatory conditions.

“NPIC is a key part of a universitywide campaign to boost drug development and move promising therapeutics generated by WashU investigators into early-stage clinical trials,” said David H. Perlmutter, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs, the George and Carol Bauer Dean, and the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Distinguished Professor. “It is exciting to see the program issue this first round of awards to such promising innovations. We look forward to seeing these projects make their way down the drug development pathways necessary to achieve investigational new drug status.”

The inaugural awardees and their projects are:

  • Carl DeSelm, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of radiation oncology, is developing new cell-based immunotherapies to be effective against solid tumors such as breast cancer and lung cancer. Current cell-based therapies, while highly effective against certain leukemias and lymphomas, don’t work in patients with solid cancers in part because of their 3D complexity. DeSelm’s goal is to create therapeutic cells — called chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) antigen presenting cells — that would give the immune system numerous target options specific to each patient’s tumor. Going after multiple patient-specific targets simultaneously could improve the response and the ability to cure a wide range of cancers, including solid tumors that don’t respond to conventional or other immune therapies.
  • John F. DiPersio, MD, PhD, the Virginia E. & Sam J. Golman Professor of Medicine, is developing improved methods to collect sufficient numbers of stem cells from donors. Those stem cells are then given to patients as treatments for blood cancers. Stem cells also are needed for stem-cell based gene therapies for inherited genetic disorders, such as sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia. But in some cases, sufficient stem cells can’t be collected from donors, which reduces the success of stem cell transplants. DiPersio’s group has developed novel small molecules that induce more robust and rapid mobilization of stem cells.
  • Kory Lavine, MD, PhD, a professor of medicine and the Alan A. and Edith L. Wolff Professor of Cardiology, is developing new immune-based treatments for inflammatory heart disease, especially heart failure. Many forms of inflammatory heart disease worsen over time and have no cure. Lavine’s work has revealed that certain immune cells, called CCR2+ macrophages, drive inflammation in the heart after heart attacks or due to genetic forms of heart disease. His group has developed an inhibitor that can block the activation of these inflammatory immune cells and possibly serve as a treatment for heart disease.

“These three projects epitomize what we are looking for in terms of their potential to produce novel drug candidates,” said Shripad Bhagwat, PhD, senior director of the Needleman Program for Innovation and Commercialization and a research professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics. “Each has a unique approach and is focused on therapeutic areas with unmet needs for new and better treatment strategies. We look forward to working with these investigators as they take their innovations to the next level. I am hopeful that these projects will lead to groundbreaking new drugs for the treatment of diseases.”

Funding through NPIC is not a traditional grant. The program was established to provide Washington University innovators with funding — normally not available from traditional sources such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) — and expert development advice and guidance to expeditiously advance important fundamental discoveries toward clinical testing.

The critical experiments that will be conducted over the next eight to 12 months for the three selected proposals are estimated to cost over $1 million. The results of these studies will help decide the next steps and additional funding support.

The first request for proposals attracted 16 submissions, which were evaluated by an expert review panel for their scientific merits and deficiencies. In addition, feedback for all of the submitted proposals was provided suggesting critical experiments and data to facilitate future efforts.

“The goal of NPIC is to provide a new center of excellence at WashU focused on guiding wonderful discoveries along a true clinical path,” Needleman said. “These projects have the potential to produce breakthrough medications, and I am optimistic about the promise of identifying more of these innovations from WashU investigators in the future.”

About Washington University School of Medicine

WashU Medicine is a global leader in academic medicine, including biomedical research, patient care and educational programs with 2,800 faculty. Its National Institutes of Health (NIH) research funding portfolio is the third largest among U.S. medical schools, has grown 52% in the last six years, and, together with institutional investment, WashU Medicine commits well over $1 billion annually to basic and clinical research innovation and training. Its faculty practice is consistently within the top five in the country, with more than 1,800 faculty physicians practicing at 65 locations and who are also the medical staffs of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals of BJC HealthCare. WashU Medicine has a storied history in MD/PhD training, recently dedicated $100 million to scholarships and curriculum renewal for its medical students, and is home to top-notch training programs in every medical subspecialty as well as physical therapy, occupational therapy, and audiology and communications sciences.

Julia covers medical news in genomics, cancer, cardiology, developmental biology, otolaryngology, biochemistry & molecular biophysics, and gut microbiome research. In 2022, she won a gold award for excellence in the Robert G. Fenley Writing Awards competition. Given by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the award recognized her coverage of long COVID-19. Before joining Washington University in 2010, she was a freelance writer covering science and medicine. She has a research background with stints in labs focused on bioceramics, human motor control and tissue-engineered heart valves. She is a past Missouri Health Journalism Fellow and a current member of the National Association of Science Writers. She holds a bachelor's degree in engineering science from Iowa State University and a master's degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Minnesota.