Monday 19 December 2022 4:42pm
Otago Innovation’s Proof of Concept Grant 2021 winners (from left) Dr Erin Macaulay, Dr Chi Lynch-Sutherland and Professor Mike Eccles, of the Pathology Department, along with Dr Sarah Diermeier, of the Biochemistry Department and founding Chief Scientific Officer of Amaroq Therapeutics, have gained entrepreneurship qualifications from Stanford Online.
It’s been a big year for Dr Erin Macaulay, Dr Chi Lynch-Sutherland and Professor Mike Eccles of the Pathology Department.
The Otago Innovation’s Proof of Concept Grant 2021 winners have not only been developing a treatment for cancer, but also managed to find time to gain entrepreneurship qualifications from Stanford Online.
The Proof of Concept competition allows Otago researchers to pitch an idea which can be turned into a commercial product. It is run by Otago Innovation, a University company responsible for developing and commercialising the University's intellectual property.
The group won the $100,000 prize for its work identifying genes only expressed in early development and cancer. It is hoping to use these previously unidentified genes to treat melanoma.
These genes, which are not found in normal healthy tissue, promote invasion and immune suppression in the placenta and embryonic stem cells, and progression and metastasis of melanoma. They believe these genes are ideal for diagnostic or therapeutic targets for cancer.
Dr Macaulay describes the group’s approach as unique.
“We are using repetitive genomic elements arising from ancient viruses that have integrated in our genomes, which are being expressed and giving ‘birth’ to new genes. These new genes are absolutely required during the earliest stages of human life, yet they also appear to be driving malignancy,” she says.
These targets of interest are a subgroup of non-coding RNA. The global interest in these molecules has resulted in a flurry of published research internationally, leaving the team busy keeping up with developments.
The team’s Proof of Concept project is ambitious – they need to not only validate their melanoma targets but also find a prospective therapy as fast as possible.
One way to target the RNA sequences of interest is by using antisense oligonucleotides (ASOs). Dr Sarah Diermeier, of the Biochemistry Department and founding Chief Scientific Officer of Amaroq Therapeutics, has provided the team with valuable ASO and drug development expertise.
In addition to this year’s work on the project, Otago Innovation sponsored Dr Macaulay, Dr Lynch-Sutherland, Professor Eccles and Dr Diermeier to gain a GIC iX Certification of Completion, powered by Stanford Online and supported by Bridgewest Ventures NZ.
The four-month course, which included material from Stanford’s Idea-to-Market entrepreneurship program, covered everything from product-market-fit assessment to venture capital raising.
Otago Innovation CEO David Christensen was impressed with the researchers’ dedication.
“Congratulations to the team on their successful completion of the Stanford entrepreneurship program and progress on their Proof of Concept Grant project,” he says.
Otago Innovation Commercialisation Manager Dr Alex Tickle has enjoyed working alongside the research team.
“Highlights have included seeing the team embrace development of future patient-focused target product profiles and adjusting their research plan accordingly.
“It was important for them to focus their future work on which specific individual would benefit from their prospective therapy, for a more granular understanding of their market fit, and how to identify them amongst melanoma patients,” she says.