NYC Scientists Score $250,000 Awards in Annual BioAccelerate Competition

5/25/11Follow @arleneweintraub

Five New York-based scientists—developing technologies ranging from replacement bones to prosthetic eyes—were named today as the winners of the 2011 BioAccelerate competition. Each will receive $250,000 from the New York City Investment Fund, which they will use to transform their technologies into commercial companies.

BioAccelerate was launched two years ago to fill a gaping funding hole: Scientists can obtain grants for basic research—like test-tube experiments—from the National Institutes of Health and other government sources, but they often struggle to raise money to do animal trials and other work that’s vital for attracting venture capital. As a result, many discoveries sit idle in university tech-transfer offices. “New York City has one of the most extensive pools of biomedical research,” says NYC Investment Fund’s CEO, Maria Gotsch. “But there’s a huge disconnect that prevents the commercialization of that science.”

The winners have big plans for their BioAccelerate awards. Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, a professor of biomedical engineering at Columbia University, has developed a method for making bone out of adult stem cells that are extracted from bone marrow or fat tissue. She hopes the product will someday be able to be used in facial reconstruction surgery, to replace jawbones that have been injured because of illness or accidents, for example. “We approached investors, but we’re too early for them,” she says. “They want to see it working in a large animal model.” Vunjak-Novakovic is now planning a trial of the replacement bone in pigs.

Some BioAccelerate winners plan to use the prize to advance human trials of their technologies. Michelle Bradbury, assistant attending radiologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, has developed a process that uses a silica nanoparticle and hand-held imaging tools to improve detection of cancer cells in lymph nodes of metastatic melanoma patients. The prize will help fund the next human clinical study, Bradbury says, in which the technology will be used for “nodal mapping,” or the identification of cancer cells that have spread to the lymph nodes. “Determining how much the cancer has spread is really important,” Bradbury says, “because without that knowledge, a physician can’t determine which drug will work best in a patient.”

For New York University professor Mark Philips, BioAccelerate is helping sustain a research idea that Big Pharma has largely abandoned. Philips is studying Ras, a gene that is important in many cancers. Drugs to inhibit Ras have been disappointing so far, but Philips has developed a new way to target the gene that he believes might work better. His lab is working on drugs that inhibit a Ras-promoting enzyme. Philips will use the BioAccelerate money to further develop his lead compound, and to develop a test that will help scientists study the behavior of Ras. Philips believes such research could reignite the pharmaceutical industry’s interest in Ras—which could lead to more funding for his research. “Drug companies want to target Ras, they just don’t know how,” he says.

Zaghloul Ahmed of City University of New York says the spotlight BioAccelerate shines on new inventions helps inventors as much as the money does—if not more. Ahmed is planning a human trial of his technology, which uses electro-stimulation to restore mobility in patients with paralysis. “I’m so happy about this prize, but the exposure means more to me than the money,” he says. “I hope a big company will identify us and decide to take our project further.”

In addition to providing money and exposure, the New York City Investment Fund assigns mentors to all the winners of BioAccelerate. The mentors, says Gotsch, “are all people who have had roles at bioscience companies.” Their job is to help the scientists transform their technologies into companies.

Those relationships benefit the mentors, too. “This program is great—it brings to the surface myriad opportunities we have in New York City,” says Milena Adamian, a BioAccelerate mentor and manager of the new angel-investing group Life Sciences Angel Network. Adamian is mentoring Sheila Nirenberg, who is developing a prosthetic retina at Weill Cornell Medical College. “It’s an amazing technology,” Adamian says. “I told her when we’re done with [BioAccelerate], we have to start a company around it.”

Here’s more information about the winners of the 2011 BioAccelerate prize:

Zaghloul Ahmed, assistant professor, City University of New York: Ahmed developed a method for electrically stimulating neurons in the brain and spinal cord to improve the mobility of patients with paralysis from spinal cord injuries, strokes, and related disorders.

Michelle Bradbury, assistant attending radiologist, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center: Bradbury’s technology uses a specially designed nanoparticle to produce real-time images of melanoma cells, so physicians can accurately pinpoint where the disease has spread.

Sheila Nirenberg, assistant professor, Weill Cornell Medical College: Nirenberg is developing a prosthetic retina that may restore normal vision in people suffering from blindness caused by retina-degenerating diseases.

Mark Philips, professor, New York University School of Medicine: Ras is a gene that has been implicated in more than 30% of all human cancers. Philips is developing anti-cancer drugs that inhibit a Ras-modifying enzyme.

Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, professor of biomedical engineering, Columbia University: Vunjak-Novakovic uses human adult stem cells to make living bone grafts, which can be used to correct bone malformations in the head and face.

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