JHM Alliance Awards Foster Technology Development

The JHM Alliance for Science and Technology Development, a group of high-level business executives that assists School of Medicine faculty in commercializing their inventions, has awarded $50,000 each to Ronald L. Schnaar, professor of pharmacology and molecular sciences and of neuroscience, and Anirban Maitra, associate professor of pathology, oncology and genetic medicine.

The so-called Alliance awards support the development of new technologies to speed their entrance to health care and Biotechnology markets.

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

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. 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 said.

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,” Maitra said.

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, Maitra said, can make cancer therapies more efficient and far less toxic to normal cells.

Approximately 200 Johns 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 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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