In 2002, Memorial Sloan-Kettering launched one of its first institution-wide collaborative centers aimed at facilitating the translation of basic science discoveries into new therapeutic strategies. Established with a generous gift from the Commonwealth Foundation for Cancer Research, the Experimental Therapeutics Center (ETC) brings together clinicians and scientists throughout Memorial Sloan-Kettering who are interested in exploring innovative therapies and supports their research projects at different stages of maturity — from preclinical laboratory investigations to clinical trials. In addition, the ETC funds a number of Memorial Sloan-Kettering’s research core facilities and hosts discussion forums focused on drug discovery and development.
On May 23, the Experimental Therapeutics Center held its tenth annual retreat with an afternoon of scientific presentations and discussions, and the assistance of several outside experts.
“Drug development is becoming increasingly complicated and expensive, and the pharmaceutical industry does not always focus on the rarer subtypes of cancer,” said ETC Chairman David A. Scheinberg, who also chairs the Sloan-Kettering Institute’s Molecular Pharmacology and Chemistry (MPC) Program, during his opening remarks at the retreat. He added that the ETC has provided Memorial Sloan-Kettering with first-class resources and technology for therapeutic development, and an organizational framework that has made the discovery process more streamlined.
“The ETC is allowing our investigators to explore a variety of new drug concepts and targets that pharmaceutical companies are less likely to pursue on their own, especially at early stages,” Dr. Scheinberg explained. “Our mission is to support scientifically groundbreaking innovations — projects that tend to be long term and high risk, but have the potential to make a true difference for cancer patients in the future.”
To date, the ETC has funded dozens of projects, many of which have reached the stage of early-phase clinical trials, with investigational drugs being tested for the first time in patients. These projects hold promise for a large number of cancers, both common and rare, and represent a wide spectrum of new strategies by which cancer cells might be killed, or by which their growth might be slowed. ETC investigators are exploring therapies that employ cell engineering, gene therapy, radiation technology, and chemical engineering of small molecules and antibodies. Many of these prospective drugs are designed to target cancer cells in innovative ways — for example, using white blood cells that have been genetically manipulated to detect and kill tumor cells, or vaccines that enhance the immune system’s natural ability to fight cancer.
Five ETC investigators presented their research at the retreat and discussed future steps with a panel of drug development experts from academia and the pharmaceutical industry.
Among the speakers was chemist Minkui Luo, of the MPC Program, who described the development of potential drugs called protein methyltransferase (PMT) inhibitors. PMTs, a class of protein-modifying enzymes that these drugs act upon, play an important role in gene regulation, and their activity has been linked to a number of cancers as well as to neurodegenerative diseases, inflammatory conditions, and other illnesses. Dr. Luo and his colleagues are using high-throughput screening and chemical design to find new tools to manipulate the activity of PMTs in laboratory-grown cancer cells — methods they hope could be translated into new cancer therapies.
Presentations of additional drug targets and therapeutic strategies were made by chemist Gabriela Chiosis, of the MPC Program; Marilyn Resh, of Sloan-Kettering Institute’s Cell Biology Program; medical oncologist Naiyer A. Rizvi, of the Thoracic Oncology Service, and pediatric oncologist Nai-Kong V. Cheung.