Dhaval Shah has spent the past three years searching for the
Holy Grail of medicine: a cure for cancer.
After starting his career at pharmaceutical manufacturer Pfizer,
Shah returned to academia in 2013 to start a lab focused on the
development of new biotechnology drugs.
Shah, an assistant professor in the School of Pharmacy and
Pharmaceutical Sciences, now leads cutting-edge research focused on
protein therapeutics and the engineering of proteins for medical
While he hasn’t found cancer’s cure, Shah has made
progress in the way the disease is treated. His efforts have helped
advance development of antibody-drug conjugates (ADC), a novel
molecule that can target cancer cells directly, eliminating the
toxic side effects of traditional chemotherapy.
Shah operates one of the few university labs in the world with
the capabilities to manufacture these molecules. His work has
gained the attention of private companies and public institutions
that each year provide him with millions of dollars to continue his
Shah’s study of ADCs also caught the attention of
Boston-based cancer drug developer Oncolinx. In the early stages of
the startup, its founders Sourav Sinha and Riley Ennis reached out
to Shah for guidance on merging ADCs with cancer medication. A
mutual interest in protein therapeutics led Shah to eventually join
the company as a scientific adviser.
“When you see someone doing the same science as yourself,
you want to help them out,” says Shah. “Talking to
people about science is what makes you a good scientist. The more I
talk to like-minded people, the better my science
The collaboration helped Oncolinx earn the $1 million top prize
at this year’s 43North entrepreneurship competition. The
startup is the first health sciences company to win the contest,
beating out more than 100 other businesses.
Oncolinx operates by combining its own chemotherapy drugs with
ADCs developed in either Shah’s lab or by one of 14
pharmaceutical companies with whom Oncolinx partners.
What separates Oncolinx from other cancer drug developers is
that its chemotherapy treatment may be effective against 30 types
of cancer, including breast, lung and pancreatic cancers.
These antibodies act as a Trojan horse, targeting receptors
specific to cancer cells. When the ADCs reach the tumor, the
molecules release the drugs hidden inside, which are then free to
break the DNA within the cancer cells. But the drugs are only
released if the ADCs reach their target, which prevents the
chemotherapy treatment from harming healthy cells.
The concept of targeted cancer treatment has existed for more
than decade, but the technology to make such a drug was largely
developed within the past five years, Shah says. There are now
three ADCs approved for use, while another 50 are undergoing
Oncolinx plans to move its research and drug development to
Buffalo. Fueled by licensing revenue from its pharmaceutical
partners, the company hopes to hire 10 additional researchers,
several of which will come from Shah’s lab. The startup aims
to hold clinical trials at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
Shah is thrilled by the support Buffalo has shown Oncolinx, but
acknowledges that expectations are high to achieve a goal that has,
so far, proven insurmountable.
“Curing cancer is harder than rocket science because
biology is a moving target,” he says. “I can’t
say that we will cure cancer, but this is a promising