Students win Breast Cancer Startup Challenge

The resources required to get discoveries from “bench to bedside” can be astounding. Consequently, many promising innovations never reach their potential. Instead, for a variety of reasons, they stall.

In an effort to reverse this trend, the Avon Foundation for Women, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the Center for Advancing Innovation created the Breast Cancer Startup Challenge. The initiative was aimed at bringing 10 promising breast cancer discoveries out of the lab and closer to market to help patients.

Some 200 teams of graduate students from around the world entered the competition. Forty-six were selected to submit business plans and “elevator pitches” explaining how they would commercially advance any one of these discoveries. A Washington University in St. Louis team was one of the competition’s winners and has been invited to launch a startup based on its plans.

Graduate students Hirak Biswas and Anurag Agarwal in the Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences and Whitney Grither in the Medical Scientist Training Program won for their proposal to advance a therapeutic breast cancer vaccine developed by NCI researchers and patented in 2011.

“We looked at the competition within the marketplace, as well as other vaccines that have gotten through the FDA regulatory process, to see what we might do to get the product closer to market,” said Grither.

The vaccine is designed to fight cancer by strengthening the body’s immune system to recognize tumor cells as foreign and attack them. It showed promise in preclinical mouse trials, but further research and development is needed before the vaccine is commercially viable and can be used to treat patients. This would be the focus of a startup company.

(From left) WUSTL’s Anurag Agarwal, Whitney Grither and Hirak Biswas show their award from the challenge. (Credit: Samantha Van Hove)

As part of launching a startup company, the Washington University team must negotiate an exclusive licensing agreement with the NCI’s technology transfer office, which will outline the legal rights and obligations of the discovery’s inventors and the students.

The team also needs to raise seed funding to further develop the vaccine and prove it has potential to work in patients. Biswas said the students have reached out to investors and received positive feedback.

The Washington University team also included Gurudatta Begur Nadiger, an executive MBA student at Northwestern University, and Erik Nyre, a law student at the University of Minnesota.

Serving as mentors were School of Medicine faculty William Gillanders, MD, professor of surgery and vice chair for research in the Department of Surgery; David C. Linehan, MD, professor of surgery and chief of the section of hepatobiliary-pancreatic and gastrointestinal surgery; and Robert D. Schreiber, PhD, the Alumni Professor of Pathology and Immunology and professor of molecular microbiology.

The faculty’s “input and expertise in tumor immunology, developing cancer vaccines and corresponding clinical trials were crucial for the team to develop a research and development strategy to develop the technology further,” wrote Biswas in a blog post about the experience.

Evan Kharasch, MD, PhD, vice chancellor for research and the Russell and Mary Shelden Professor of Anesthesiology, praised the students’ accomplishment and said their participation in the challenge “exemplifies Washington University’s initiative on research innovation and entrepreneurship, particularly the role of trainees in advancing promising science into commercialization.”

Washington University team’s elevator pitch