Partners in Research Grant Recipients Update Funders on Their Findings

JULY 10, 2015 — In October, three Georgetown scientists — one studying pancreatic cancer, another Alzheimer’s disease and the third, cardiovascular health in children with diabetes -- were awarded grants by Partners in Research, a crowd-sourced philanthropic endeavor that allows community members to support biomedical research at Georgetown. Months later, the grantees reconnected with the funders to share updates on their work.

Nobuko Sasae, diplomatic advocates chair for Doctors Speak Out and wife of Japanese Ambassador Kenichiro Sasae, hosted the fourth annual Partners in Research Showcase on June 16 at the Japanese Ambassador’s Residence.

“With all of the members of my family who are doctors, I would like to do whatever I can to support doctors and their work,” Mrs. Sasae said. “And that is the reason why I have become the diplomatic chair of the Doctors Speak Out program.”

Partners in Research grew out of Doctors Speak Out, a quarterly community education series where Georgetown researchers discuss their work on important health topics, including stress, nutrition, immunotherapy, complementary and alternative medicine, transplant surgery, epigenetics and bioethics. Moved by the need for funding to advance the scientists’ work, Doctors Speak Out attendees pooled their money to support their research.

Partners who contribute at least $1,000 review research proposals and select the most compelling projects. Since its inception in 2011, Partners in Research has raised more than $335,000. The most recent grantees each received $30,000 for their work.

“It was the enthusiasm that came from this program that led to the creation of Partners in Research, which has funded 10 research projects to date,” said Elliott Crooke, PhD, senior associate dean of faculty and academic affairs and professor and chair of the department of biochemistry and molecular and cellular biology. “And the real purpose of today is to hear from three of the scientists who can present the results of their work that was funded through the generous philanthropic support of Partners in Research.

Identifying potential new uses for existing drugs

Daniel Pak, PhD, associate professor of pharmacology and physiology, used his grant to study the protein PLK2, which helps increase levels of amyloid beta, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease that leads to neurodegeneration. In his research, Pak found that the drug volasertib, an inhibitor of PLK2, significantly slowed the progression of Alzheimer’s disease in a mouse model.

“It had a remarkable effect. We were very floored to see this kind of effect,” Pak said. “So these are extremely exciting and encouraging data.”

Volasertib is currently in phase 2 clinical trials as a cancer therapy drug. Pak thought it would make a good candidate for treating Alzheimer’s disease because it was effective in treating cancer, had been well tolerated by cancer patients and had few adverse side effects. “We knew that it was effective against this target in vivo and we thought that it would make a promising drug candidate for our study, especially since it has already gone through a lot of safety issues with phase 1 trials, it might accelerate repurposing for Alzheimer’s,” he said.

Similarly, with support from Partners in Research, Shahin Assefnia, DVM, assistant professor of molecular oncology, found that a drug currently in clinical trials for rheumatoid arthritis therapy may help treat pancreatic cancer as well. Assefnia showed that the protein cadherin-11, which is associated with rheumatoid arthritis, promotes the development of pancreatic cancer, so drugs that inhibit cadherin-11 may treat both conditions.

“What we hope is to combine this drug and small molecule cadherin-11 inhibitors with the chemotherapeutic regimens that are currently being used in the clinic,” Assefnia said. “The preliminary data that we acquired by the help of this grant will help us seek additional funding from NIH.”

Grateful grantees seek further funding

With her grant, Evgenia Gourgari, MD, assistant professor of pediatric endocrinology, found that children with type 1 diabetes also showed symptoms of subclinical cardiovascular disease. Those findings will allow Gourgari to pursue a personal goal of hers - applying for a grant from the National Institutes of Health that will allow her to continue her research.

“This would not have been possible if I didn’t have the preliminary results,” Gourgari said. “Hopefully with more funding I will be able to conduct an intervention study in the future. Eventually, we’ll want to know if treatment can make a difference and if it matters to start treatment early so we can prevent future heart disease.”

“What’s happening with Partners in Research is, through that support, the investigators are getting these pilot studies done that are making them much more competitive to then continue on to large, extramurally funded types of projects, multi-year projects,” Crooke said. “So this is just a fantastic program."

By Kat Zambon

GUMC Communications