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Johns Hopkins Medicine
Media Relations and Public Affairs
Media Contacts:
Audrey Huang, 410-614-5105,
Vanessa Wasta, 410-614-2916,
Feb. 9, 2007


A nerve-growth chemical and cancer drug delivery “envelope” are two of the novel technologies awarded by Johns Hopkins Medicine business development leaders.  The so-called Alliance awards support the development of new technologies to speed their entrance to health care and biotechnology markets.

The Alliance, a group of high-level business executives that assists Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine faculty in commercializing their inventions, awarded $50,000 each to Anirban Maitra, M.B.B.S., associate professor of pathology, oncology and genetic medicine; and Ronald L. Schnaar, Ph.D., professor of pharmacology and molecular sciences and neuroscience.

“We are thrilled about this Alliance award-it will help us complete ongoing preclinical studies and move our discovery toward clinical trials,” says Schnaar.

Schnaar and his team successfully coaxed damaged and severed spinal cord nerves in rats to regrow after injury by treating the nerve ends with a natural bacterial enzyme, sialidase. Sialidase interferes with molecules in the spinal cord that normally stop nerve fibers from growing.

There currently is no approved therapy to get nerves to regrow after spinal cord injury, says Schnaar. Spinal cord contusion, or bruising, the most common form of spinal cord injury in humans, generally occurs when dislodged backbones violently impact the spinal cord and pinch the nerves inside. Schnaar’s team treated injured spinal cords in rats after an experimental contusion that caused loss of hind leg function. In a pilot study they found that rats treated with sialidase regained coordinated hind leg movement, improved stepping and some weight bearing.

“A treatment like sialidase could potentially help the 100,000 people who suffer traumatic spinal cord injury worldwide each year,” he says.

Maitra, a member of Hopkins’ Kimmel Cancer Center, developed a drug delivery system that holds promise for making cancer therapies easier to give to patients.  “We have many powerful cancer drugs currently in use and on the horizon, but we can’t give many of them to patients yet because the drugs won’t dissolve in liquids,” says Maitra.

His way around that is to package them in nanoparticles, far smaller than a cell, that encase the toxic drugs in a shell of cross-linked molecules.  By attaching antibodies or other particles on the shell’s surface, researchers can direct the drug envelope to a specific cancer cell “address.”  The technology, says Maitra, can make cancer therapies more efficient and far less toxic to normal cells.

Last year’s awards went to a metal-free air motor and a new method for diagnosing bacterial infections.

In building a robot to perform finely tuned medical procedures in the closed tube of high-intensity magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) equipment, Dan Stoianovici, Ph.D., and colleagues developed an MRI-compatible motor made of nonmagnetic materials. Relying on plastics, ceramics and rubbers, the electricity-free motor operates exclusively through pressure and light.

Stoianovici, associate professor of urology and mechanical engineering and director of the URobotics Program at the Brady Urological Institute, received $50,000 to test the robot in fully automated prostate brachytherapy, a procedure that injects a radioactive tracer/seed under MRI guidance. A report describing the motor will be published in the February issue of IEEE-ASME Transactions on Mechatronics. Animal testing currently is under way, says Stoianovici.

“Without funds from the Alliance, we would not have been able to move our project from animal models to the clinic,” says Martin Pomper, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor at Johns Hopkins who also received $50,000 last year to create new imaging agents that locate infections.  “Now, we’re ready to publish data on our first tests in humans, and several biotechnology companies are interested in producing our agent.”

Pomper’s bacteria-detector, developed in collaboration with Bert Vogelstein, M.D., of Hopkins’ Kimmel Cancer Center, uses a radioactive tracer that specifically homes to the infectious bugs.  The tracer has a special affinity for an enzyme called thymidine kinase, but only binds to the bacterial and not human version of this enzyme. Injected intravenously into patients, the tracer lights up areas of bacterial infection on a combined PET/CT scanner.  Pomper says it can be used to diagnose infection when physicians question the source of patients’ pain or fever.

“Hopkins is highly supportive of translational research that takes basic discoveries and inventions to the bedside,” says Chi V. Dang, M.D., Ph.D., the Johns Hopkins Family Professor and vice dean for research. “The Alliance provides a means for faculty members to get advice from industry leaders on how to take discoveries closer to the marketplace.”

Approximately 200 Hopkins faculty members are part of the Technology Opportunities Program that works with the Alliance. Twice each year, some 20 faculty present their inventions to Alliance members and receive immediate feedback. The Alliance comprises 28 executives from a range of disciplines, including the pharmaceutical, investment banking and medical device industries.

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