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URMC / Education / Graduate Education / URBest Blog / January 2019 / Follow The Science - A Critical Path Toward Translational Research

Follow The Science - A Critical Path Toward Translational Research

Career Story by Elizabeth Evans, Vice President of Preclinical Research at Vaccinex, Inc.

As an undergraduate, I loved biology and, like many young students, was motivated “to make a difference”.  Throughout my education, I realized my curiosity and passion for critical thinking was best fulfilled by laboratory research, while my personal experiences fueled pursuit of translational research, especially cancer research.  I feel very fortunate to be able to pursue my professional goals, and to say I love my job 20 years later.  I remain hopeful that my contributions to a dedicated team will translate to effective therapies in the coming years.

My career path has been part “right place at the right time”, part personal drive, part team work, and a big part adaptability and following the science.  I completed my graduate work at URMC in the laboratory of Dr. Maurice Zauderer, who during that time, founded a biotech company based on the work of myself and others in the lab.  The goal of Vaccinex was to use our novel technology to generate efficient screening method in mammalian cells and to discover drugs for unmet needs, including cancer.  Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity to join. Even in the early years, our lab was very collaborative, and we maintained that philosophy as we grew.  Operating with limited resources and in a sort of biotech bubble in Rochester, we have found added value in extending collaborations with partners and academic labs.  Motivated to become successful in translating our basic science discoveries to the clinic, it became obvious early on that we would need to adapt our technology and strategy to what we thought might be “commercially successful”.  These turning points often beg the question “Is this a critical path to the clinic?”  Due to the slow nature of scientific research, commercial success is not often trendy, and the most successful adaptations seem to be driven by persistence and recognizing clues from good science.  Slow and steady over the past 20 years, we have morphed our business strategy several times, expanded our team, learned the difference between research and development, interacted with the FDA, contracted everything from preclinical studies to drug manufacture, and have recently launched several trials in oncology and neurodegenerative disease. Along the way, I have learned many lessons, but an overarching theme has emerged for me, which has been humbling yet also inspiring.  There is still so much basic science that we don’t understand and, therefore, so many failed clinical programs. Yet that reality opens so many opportunities to follow the science and find solutions to unmet medical needs.

My career path discussion will focus on lessons learned and new challenges in translational research, using examples from the development of our investigational drug for treatment of cancer as a case study: antibody to Semaphorin4D.  Our preclinical data suggest that antibody blockade of SEMA4D shifts the immune contexture in the tumor microenvironment, acting to reverse suppressive myeloid cells and promote anti-tumor activity of tumoricidal immune cells.  Importantly, preclinical combinations of anti-SEMA4D with other immunotherapies enhanced tumor regression.  These observations provided the rationale for clinical trials evaluating the combination of anti-SEMA4D with immune checkpoint antibodies, including Opdivo® (nivolumab) and Yervoy® (ipilimumab).  Although we have successfully progressed anti-SEMA4D pepinemab into the clinic, the research continues.  While we eagerly await clinical results, we continue to develop assays to analyze the clinical samples.  As the tools for translational research rush ahead, we are striving to keep pace and to innovate upon current technologies to address the novelties of our drug.  Discovery of biomarkers can enhance our understanding of response and mechanism of action and can be achieved through bioinformatics to interrogate big data sets.  This is our next big challenge and we continue to seek help through collaborations and external experts

We are currently seeking interns and/or scientists interested in the tumor microenvironment and using bioinformatics to facilitate translational research.  I look forward to meeting you on Thursday January 10, 2019 from 11 – noon in the Center for Experiential Learning Room 2-7536.

Tracey Baas | 1/8/2019

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