Innovative Engine: Medical Research
Researchers at the Vagelos College of Physician & Surgeons are rewriting the course of scientific investigation, intent on speeding up the process of discovery that will help patients with cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and other intractable diagnoses.
In cancer, Andrea Califano, Dr, the Clyde and Helen Wu Professor of Chemical and Systems Biology and chair of the Department of Systems Biology, decided to turn cancer treatment theory on its head. The first wave of research in pursuit of personalized oncology focused on clues embedded within individual tumors. Decode the nucleic acids gone awry within the DNA of a particular patient’s cancer, or so the thinking goes, to identify treatments tailored to target that specific mutation.
It’s a fine theory, says Dr. Califano in the article, but investigators still have a lot of work to do before the vast majority of cancers yield to that approach. “Only maybe 25 percent of patients have a mutation that could be defined as actionable,” he says.
For more than a decade, Dr. Califano has championed what might be considered an end run around cancer mutations, focusing instead on identifying and blocking the networks of normal proteins—known as master regulators—hijacked by deranged DNA to spur tumor formation and sustain tumor growth. Prevent the signals those proteins send on behalf of a cancerous mutation, and the cancer itself screeches to a halt.
In February, the New York State Health Department approved for clinical use two tests based on Dr. Califano’s work. Marketed under the names DarwinOncoTarget and DarwinOncoTreat—and developed by DarwinHealth, a Manhattan-based biotech firm co-founded by Dr. Califano in 2015—the tests are available to oncologists and researchers through the Laboratory of Personalized Genomic Medicine in the Department of Pathology & Cell Biology. DarwinOncoTarget identifies all proteins in an individual’s tumor that are acting abnormally and for which an FDA-approved or investigational drug already exists. DarwinOncoTreat homes in on the entire complement of master regulator proteins responsible for launching and maintaining a specific tumor to predict the drugs that, by interfering with these proteins, will most likely benefit the patient.
Startups like DarwinHealth have become an increasingly common vehicle for speeding innovative treatment approaches conceived within VP&S laboratories into clinical use, says Orin Herskowitz, Columbia University’s senior vice president of intellectual property and tech transfer and executive director of Columbia Technology Ventures. This year, more than 400 inventions emerged from the University’s research laboratories, generating more than 200 patent applications. Among the 100-plus licenses issued this year to commercial partners, more than two dozen were written to startups founded by Columbia faculty and students.