As most incubators do, we always like to catch up with our graduates to see how they have been doing since they have “left the nest” of the Venture Development Center (VDC).
I got a chance to see how Dr. Jill Macoska, director of the Center for Personalized Cancer Therapy (CPCT) was doing almost five months after leaving the VDC.
To the VDC staff, Dr. Macoska is just “Jill.”
Jill is also the Alton J. Brann Distinguished Professor in Science and Mathematics. Since CPCT’s launch, she was also recently named one of the twenty Women to Watch in Science and Technology by Boston Business Journal.
However, again, Jill doesn’t seem like the typical sort of woman to have all these titles attached to her.
She’s down-to-earth, a straight shooter and approachable. Her demeanor is an analogy as to how her center will be an open door to innovators from Boston and beyond.
Below is a little more detail on how CPCT is bringing innovation to UMass via supporting translational research, and by educating and preparing UMass Boston students for careers in biotech.
VDC: You were quoted in BostInno that you benefited from access to the startups at the Venture Development Center. Your experience there gave you a better understanding of how to commercialize the biomarkers the Center for Personalized Cancer Therapy is developing:
“When I first got here, I was housed over in the Venture Development Center. I was surrounded by startups, and I was really learning how startups are formed, how they become sustained, the kind of business models they have to develop to be competitive, how they get their funding, all of that stuff.”
Do you have anything more to add to the above quote?
JM: Not really, it’s all still true!
VDC: I hear this term a lot, but I wanted to hear the definition from you- what is translational research?
JM: The common definition of translational research is “bench to bedside” research, i.e., scientific discoveries in the lab are “translated” to the clinic. We now realize that the process is more complex and can translate across strata from laboratory to animal testing to human subjects and back again.
VDC: Okay, so as part of the CPCT’s goals to support research platforms for translational research, and commercialize cancer biomarkers with utility, you have been working with biotech startups. I know some of them were/are affiliated with the VDC. What companies are you working with?
JM: Several, including current or former VDC startups such as Bioarray, Parabase Genomics, and Pressure Biosciences as well as more established ones like NanoString. It’s a dynamic process.
VDC: I understand that you are working with my colleague, Susan Hanlon Daudelin, UMass Boston’s Director of Industry Relations, on identifying industry partners for the CPCT. She tells me that there has been a range of interest in the results that CPCT’s translational research will bring to the market. Could you tell me more about the types of companies (other than startups) that would like to collaborate with CPCT and their level of interest in your work?
JM: We’ve met with several global biopharma companies. I expect that these talks will continue as the CPCT biomarker pipeline gets up and running. Having products is a great way to align with biopharma, and we are very interested in maintaining those alliances and creating more.
VDC: Was there much going on at UMass Boston in terms of translational research here when you arrived?
JM: Some, mainly through the U54 UMass Boston-DF/HCC partnership and the College of Nursing and Health Sciences. There’s more now and part of the mission of the CPCT is to foster growth in that area.
VDC: The CPCT also has a goal of providing UMass Boston students with skills suitable for academic careers or employment in the regional biomedical industry. We understand that you are teaching a cancer biology course. What do you teach specifically in the course and have you brought in any guest speakers?
JM: Cancer Biology has been taught at UMass Boston from time to time, but never consistently. I’m going to change that and, hopefully, offer additional human biology-based courses, which resonates with what Biology undergraduates would like to study.
In the course, we progress from very basic concepts such as “how do genetic mutations promote tumorigenesis” and “how do protein/protein interactions become dysregulated in tumors” to fairly complex concepts such as “how is the cell cycle altered in tumors?” and “how do you identify anti-tumor therapeutic targets?”
This past semester we were fortunate to have Dr. Iain Martin, who’s been working in the field of Drug Metabolism and Pharmacokinetics (DMPK) in the pharmaceutical industry for 26 years with various companies and, for the last 3 and a half years, with Merck in Boston. He came to lecture on chemotherapeutic drug discovery and validation. Dr. Martin not only gave a very informative lecture he also personified the variety of careers in the Life Sciences Industry available to our students in the Boston area.
VDC: A soon-to-be graduate student, who interned in your lab, Mengjun Li, is interested in a biotech career. We are helping her to find a good fit. How did you inspire her to discover an industry path?
JM: I try to emphasize to my students that majoring in Biology allows them to choose from among many career paths. Boston is the biggest Life Sciences cluster in the U.S., so it just makes sense to raise awareness about that. I’m very pleased that Mengjun is interested in a biotech career!
VDC: Has CPCT been directly responsible for connecting other UMass Boston students to jobs/internships with biotechs, specifically because of the student’s experience with CPCT?
JM: Not yet, we’re still establishing those ties with local companies. But it’s in progress.
Jill, you and the CPCT team are making excellent progress. We are anxiously awaiting to see what happens next!
Dr. Jill Macoska is currently the Alton J. Brann Endowed Chair and Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She has led peer-reviewed and funded research for the past 20 years focused on elucidating the molecular genetic alterations and dysfunctional intracellular signaling mechanisms that promote prostate pathobiology.