Developmental Therapeutics Core Gets Research Closer to the Clinic

As more and more pharmaceutical companies drop the early testing stages for new drugs, it is becoming increasingly important for academic institutions to participate in earlystage drug development. To foster this process, Northwestern established the Tumor Biology Core (TBC), now called the Developmental Therapeutics Core (DTC), one year ago. Under the umbrella of the Center for Developmental Therapeutics, which is part of the Chemistry of Life Processes Institute, the core provides services focused on supporting the translation of new therapies. 

mazar1_0.jpgAndrew Mazar, director of the Center for Developmental Therapeutics

“The name is a bit limiting because we do more than tumor biology models,” says Andrew Mazar, molecular biosciences and director of the core.  “The majority of the work we do is in drug development, in general. We do the exploratory work that’s required to decide if the drug should be taken to the next step.” 

After basic research is completed in the investigator’s lab, experienced staff members in the DTC can set up disease models, turn the drug into a solution that can be injected, run toxicology tests to see how well the drug is tolerated in the body, and complete various other in vivo and in vitro studies. 

For example, Teri Odom, chemistry, developed new particles that bind to specific parts of a DNA construct to target disease. The DTC is helping her learn where the drug is distributed in the organs to make sure it is activating within the tumor. 

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Andrew Mazar is using the Developmental Therapeutics Core to test the effect of an antibody he developed, called ATN-658, on cancer.

The images in the left column are of the control sample. Images in the right column are from treated samples. The top image is an x-ray radiograph of skeletal lesions to evaluate the effect of ATN-658 on prostate cancer. The bottom is an image of the lesions with hemotoxylin and eosin staining.

The DTC is also testing gold nanoparticles that were developed in the laboratory of Chad Mirkin, chemistry. Mazar suspects that the nanoparticles will enter clinical trials this year to treat patients with brain cancer. 

“We can fit our services into whatever the faculty member’s needs are,” says Angki Kandela, assistant director of the DTC. “We can run all the tests from start to finish or we can train them to run everything on their own. Sometimes investigators just need us to do partial work because their lab does not have that specific expertise.”

Located in the basement of Silverman Hall, the DTC works closely with Northwestern’s Innovation and New Ventures Office (INVO) to partner with faculty investigators from the beginning. The DTC already serves 30 principal investigators and is actively growing. 

“The core is a completely new model for academia,” Mazar says. “No one else has a core where they take compounds or targets invented in a basic research lab and figure out how to get them into the clinic. It’s the model that biotech and pharma use, so it’s a common model.  But it hasn’t been applied before in an academic setting.”

Mazar spent 20 years working for pharmaceutical companies where he developed oncology drugs. Based on his own experience, he says that it is more productive for universities to handle the early stages of drug development.  Otherwise, members of the companies tend to take the drug from the investigator who knows it best and try to get up to speed on the research by themselves. 

“The better investment is to take that researcher who has the knowledge and partner him or her internally with people like us who can fill in the pieces in order to take it to the next step,” Mazar says. “Then you reach a critical point where you can now hand it off the drug to a company, and they can take it the rest of the way.” 

In addition to partnering with INVO, the DTC also actively works with the Center for Molecular Innovation and Drug Discovery, the Center for Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence, NUCATS, the DNA/RNA Delivery Core, and the Clinical Pharmacology Core. 

“People don’t realize that drug development needs to bring together many disciplines,” Mazar says. “You have to be able to work in collaborative teams; you have to be risk taking.”