It sounds like a headline out of Warren Ellis‘s Iron Man run.
Isaac Perlmutter, the billionaire CEO of Marvel and one of Disney’s largest shareholders has, along with his wife Laura Perlmutter, donated an additional $9 million to the NYU Langone Medical Center and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in addition to a 2014 donation of $50 million that set up the Perlmutter Cancer Center.
The first $3 million of that will be used to finance six joint research projects, with co-investigators on each project will receive a two-year, $500,000 grant–$250,000 for each site.
While the remaining $6 million will establish a state-of-the-art research facility on the Technion campus in Israel to support these and other research projects, primarily in the emerging field of cancer metabolomics, the systematic study of the unique chemical fingerprints that cellular processes leave behind. These processes are both affected by, and can influence, a variety of human diseases, including cancer.
In the first joint collaboration, NYU Langone and Technion researchers will test the ability of a nanotechnology based on stem cell “nanoghosts” to deliver to the brain a promising treatment for metastatic melanoma, skin cancer that has spread or metastasized, and is often incurable.
In earlier studies, researchers at the Technion took a stem cell, removed its contents, and then shaped a piece of the cell’s outer membrane into a vehicle to deliver treatments into the brain. The idea was to borrow the stem cell’s outer membrane ability to home in on cancer cells. As a fragment of the former stem cell’s membrane, the nanoghost encompasses particular mechanisms that slow it enough to traverse the barrier that filters blood flowing into the brain, and which keeps most drugs from entering.
The nanoghost’s cargo is a microRNA (miR), a stretch of genetic material that fine-tunes genetic messages by blocking the conversion of genes into proteins. First applied by NYU researchers to metastatic melanoma, miR-124a, in particular, blocks the expression of cancer-promoting genes. The joint team’s experiments will seek to determine the feasibility of encapsulating miR-124a in the nanoghost, and study how the vehicle reaches its target in mouse models of the disease.
“Our studies should provide important information on nanoghosts’ general value as drug and gene carriers to the brain, and create potential for new treatment approaches against brain tumors and metastases,” said Professor Marcelle Machluf, PhD, head of the Laboratory for Cancer Drug Delivery & Cell Based Technologies at the Technion, and inventor of the nanoghost with her colleagues there. “The difficulty of delivering agents to the brain represents a major impediment to improving outcomes in patients suffering from brain tumors. Our state-of-the-art nanovehicle promises safer, simpler and more clinically relevant treatments than existing vehicles, which are comprised of polymers or synthetic vesicles which largely lack the ability to enter the brain and to target evolving and changing pathologies.”
“It is much harder to secure funding for this type of high risk, high reward research,” said Eva Hernando-Monge, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Pathology at NYU Langone, a member of the Perlmutter Cancer Center, and leader of the NYU team that first identified miR-124 as a suppressor of the growth of brain metastases. “The Perlmutters’ generous gift gives us the ability to be bold.”
Like the stem cells they are based on, nanoghosts are invisible to the immune system, which means they could potentially be made from donated stem cells, expanded to large numbers in the lab, and not just from the patient’s own supply. In the future, this could enable the stockpiling of nanoghost treatments used off the shelf without fear of immune reactions to treatments based on “foreign” cells.
The second joint project will investigate whether an enzyme called heparanase can be used to diagnose and treat mesothelioma, a rare cancer that develops in the mesothelium, the protective lining of the lungs and other internal organs of the body. Malignant pleural mesothelioma (MPM), the most common form of the disease, often occurs after exposure to asbestos and is resistant to most therapies.
Heparanase was first identified as a treatment target in 2004 by a team led by Israel Vlodavsky, PhD, one of the project’s co-investigators and professor at the Rappaport Faculty of Medicine. Past studies found that patients with high levels of this enzyme in their tumors have lower survival rates after surgery, and that related tumors in mice respond to treatment with heparanase-inhibiting compounds.
The enzyme breaks up molecular chains of heparan sulfate, a building block of the scaffolds that give organs shape and support. Cancer cells use the enzyme to break down tissue barriers around a growing tumor, providing new pathways for the cancer to spread and for the building of blood vessels that supply tumors. In addition, breaking up extracellular matrices releases pro-growth proteins stored there to further drive disease. Furthermore, the joint team has developed the novel theory that heparanase secreted by tumor cells primes local microenvironments in a “vicious” cycle where inflammation and tumor growth drive each other.
The co-investigators at NYU Langone — led by Harvey I. Pass, MD, the Stephen E. Banner Professor of Thoracic Surgery and vice chair for research, Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery, at NYU Langone, also a member of its Perlmutter Cancer Center — will use tissue samples from its Thoracic Oncology Archives to validate Dr. Vlodavsky’s findings in hopes of eventually evaluating the treatment potential of heparanase-inhibiting compounds in mesothelioma clinical trials. Dr. Pass has been collecting tissue samples from his surgical patients since 1989, when he was head of thoracic oncology at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The collection now houses frozen specimens from more than 350 mesothelioma patients.
“This project, supported through the generosity of the Perlmutters, enables us to collaborate with one of the world’s leading experts on the role of heparanase in cancer, and is crucial in developing new strategies,” Dr. Pass says. “We hope that these experiments can be translated into applications for ongoing funding from the NCI, and enable Phase I trials with new therapeutics that influence heparanase pathways.”
“Our collaboration represents the first attempt to focus on heparanase as a major risk factor in mesothelioma and a valid target for the development of heparanase-inhibiting drugs,” Dr. Vlodavsky says. “In fact, applying a potent inhibitor of the heparanase enzyme we have already demonstrated a most prominent inhibition of tumor progression in mouse models of human mesothelioma, resulting in a pronounced extension of mouse survival. This joint effort provides an opportunity to make important strides in both our fundamental understanding of mesothelioma and in translating this knowledge into therapeutics.”
Much has been made of the Perlmutter’s financial support for the Republican Party Presidential candidates with two million to promote Marco Rubio‘s Presidential campaign, and one million to Donald Trump‘s veteran campaign. Rubio has stated that he does not support human embryonic stem cell research while Trump stated he is undecided. Technion however was the place that first harvested human embryonic stem cells and are likely to form the basis for this research. It may demonstrates that the Perlmutter are a little more nuanced when it comes to putting their money where their mouths are.