Published December 20, 2016
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 use.
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 research.
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 becomes.”
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 clinical trials.
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 technology.”