Philanthropy-Backed Accelerator Advances Cancer Therapies

Arti Gaur and Jordan Isaacs
Arti Gaur, assistant professor of neurology at Geisel, left, and Jordan Isaacs, Guarini ’24, right, won the top award from the Accelerator for their project on a new potential therapy for brain tumors. (Photo by Kata Sasvari)

The Accelerator builds on our culture of collaboration and innovation. In its first year, it has attracted 17 teams, including 41 faculty and students, all eager to turn discoveries into life-changing treatments for cancer patients.

Steven Leach, MD, director of Dartmouth and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Norris Cotton Cancer Center

A philanthropy-funded initiative, the Accelerator was launched in 2020 by Norris Cotton Cancer Center and the Magnuson Center for Entrepreneurship to bring new cancer treatments to patients more quickly. So far, it has raised $3.3 million in philanthropic gifts and seeks to hit $5 million by June.

"When you look at the number of biotech start-ups that have spun out of our cancer center, it's astounding," says Steven Leach, MD, director of Dartmouth's and Dartmouth-Hitchcock's Norris Cotton Cancer Center and the Preston T. and Virginia R. Kelsey Chair in Cancer at the Geisel School of Medicine. "The Accelerator builds on our culture of collaboration and innovation. In its first year, it has attracted 17 teams, including 41 faculty and students, all eager to turn discoveries into life-changing treatments for cancer patients."

This year's winning teams were selected by an external review panel of successful biomedical entrepreneurs and investors. Teams of faculty and students from across Dartmouth competed in two days of pitches in early April—with strong representation from Geisel, Thayer School of Engineering, the Guarini School of Graduate and Advanced Studies, and Arts and Sciences. The awards of $300,000, $100,000, and $50,000 will be used by the winning teams to fund critical next steps in the development of high-potential cancer treatments. Those steps are aimed at making their innovations ready for private industry investment and more likely to advance to clinical trials.

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"It's an honor to support and nurture Dartmouth-wide entrepreneurial ecosystem dedicated to overcoming cancer," says Errik Anderson '00, Thayer '06, Tuck '07, who recently made a leadership gift to the Accelerator and serves on its external review panel. Anderson is CEO and founder of Alloy Therapeutics, founder and managing partner of Ulysses Diversified Holdings, and co-founder of multiple other biotech companies.

Last September, five Dartmouth alumni helped launch the Accelerator with their personal philanthropy, totaling $1.4 million. Since then, five more alumni, parents, and friends of Dartmouth, including Anderson, have made gifts, bringing the total to $3.3 million. Other recent donors to the Accelerator include Paul Biondi '92 and John Collins '90.

"With greater philanthropic support, the Accelerator will enable more Dartmouth faculty and students to advance their innovations for the benefit of cancer patients everywhere," says Jamie Coughlin, director of the Magnuson Center. "That is the power of philanthropy and the Dartmouth entrepreneurial community."

Beyond Awards

Although only three teams won monetary awards, all participated in a 10-week course in which they learned about biomedical entrepreneurship and regulatory requirements and had to create step-by-step, multiyear plans for the development of their innovations. The course instructors hailed from Simbex and Celdara Medical, two local biomedical companies.

"I wish I had taken a course like this 10 years ago," says Arti Gaur, an assistant professor of neurology, who already had some experience as an entrepreneur before joining the Accelerator. (Read more about Gaur and her Fearless Pursuit.) "I have seen my approach and thought process evolve as a result of the Accelerator, to think in a more systematic, comprehensive way about bringing a new therapy or technology to patients."

Gaur and graduate student Jordan Isaacs, Guarini '24, won the $300 thousand award for their project on a new potential therapy for high-grade gliomas, a kind of brain tumor for which the median survival is only 14 months. The award will help fund a critical next step on the journey to clinical trials: large-scale pharmacology studies by an independent commercial lab.

"For three and half years, I have pieced together funding for this project," says Gaur. "This award will help us get to the next phase, where we can potentially attract the big money that will be needed for clinical trials."

Staffed by the Magnuson Center, the Technology Transfer Office, and graduate and undergraduate student interns, the Accelerator has also helped several teams generate new invention disclosures and patents, meet with venture capital groups, initiate discussions with private companies, and establish connections with successful biomedical entrepreneurs and investors.

The next cohort of Accelerator teams will be selected in fall 2021 and will compete for the second annual awards in spring 2022. Learn more about the program at the Accelerator website.

2021 Award Recipients

$300,000 Award

Establishing a Safe, Effective Therapy for Brain Tumors

Project Leads: Arti Gaur, assistant professor of neurology, Geisel; and Jordan Isaacs, Guarini '24, a PhD student in the Cancer Biology Program

The Innovation: The award will fund dose optimization and pharmacology studies for a new, Dartmouth-created highly selective anti-estrogen compound that targets brain tumors. The studies are necessary to enter clinical trials.

$100,000 Award

Solving MYC, the Most Wanted Target in Cancer

Project Leads: Michael Cole, a professor of molecular and systems biology, Geisel; and Edmond J. Feris, Guarini '19, research associate, Norris Cotton Cancer Center

The Innovation: This award will fund the characterization of MYC inhibitors, which were identified by screening 50,000 compounds. MYC is a cancer-promoting gene prevalent in breast cancer, lung cancer, colon cancer, leukemia, lymphoma, and melanoma.

$50,000 Quinn Scholar Award
(Named in honor of J. Brian and Allie J. Quinn and their generosity)

Barcoded-Antibody Library for In Vitro Engineering (B-ALIVE)

Project Leads: Jiwon Lee, the Ralph and Marjorie Crump Assistant Professor of Engineering, Thayer; Seungmin Shin, PhD, postdoctoral fellow; and Nicholas Curtis, PhD candidate and National Science Foundation graduate fellow, Thayer

The Innovation: This award will fund the development of a technology platform that will enable more accurate high-throughput screening of new, more effective cancer drugs, specifically monoclonal antibodies.

About Norris Cotton Cancer Center

Norris Cotton Cancer Center, located on the campus of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center (DHMC) in Lebanon, NH, combines advanced cancer research at Dartmouth College’s Geisel School of Medicine in Hanover, NH with the highest level of high-quality, innovative, personalized, and compassionate patient-centered cancer care at DHMC, as well as at regional, multi-disciplinary locations and partner hospitals throughout NH and VT. NCCC is one of only 52 centers nationwide to earn the National Cancer Institute’s prestigious “Comprehensive Cancer Center” designation, the result of an outstanding collaboration between DHMC, New Hampshire’s only academic medical center, and Dartmouth College. Now entering its fifth decade, NCCC remains committed to excellence, outreach and education, and strives to prevent and cure cancer, enhance survivorship and to promote cancer health equity through its pioneering interdisciplinary research. Each year the NCCC schedules 61,000 appointments seeing nearly 4,000 newly diagnosed patients, and currently offers its patients more than 100 active clinical trials.