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Forbes Will Use Manning Award to Target Deadly Hepatocellular Cancers

Neil St. John Forbes

Neil St. John Forbes

Professor Neil St. John Forbes of the Chemical Engineering Department will receive a Manning-Institute for Applied Life Sciences Award (IALS) from the UMass Applied Proof-of-Concept Seed Fund Program. The grant will help the Forbes start-up company, Ernest Pharmaceuticals, to develop a bacterial intracellular delivery platform (BacID) to target therapeutic drugs specifically and directly into Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) cells, which represent the third-leading cause of cancer-related deaths worldwide. One benefit of this pioneering therapy is treating advanced HCC tumors that are currently untreatable.

According to the Mayo Clinic, HCC is the most common type of primary liver cancer and occurs most often in people with chronic liver diseases, such as cirrhosis caused by hepatitis B or hepatitis C infection.

The objective of the Manning Award – which offers up to $100,000 of funding for approximately 12 months – is “to advance the ongoing development of discoveries, new knowledge, and inventions originating from UMass Amherst towards translational research funding and/or advancing start-ups towards product candidate status,” as the IALS website explains.

According to Forbes, “HCC incidence has tripled since 1975, and increased incidence in Western countries is expected due to its link with obesity and diabetes. Almost 75 percent of HCC patients get diagnosed at intermediate or late stage, for which no curative treatment exists.”

Forbes says that the current clinical therapies extend overall survival by several months before the onset of recurrence or multi-drug resistance. With a growing number of patients, very little progress has been made in increasing overall survival in HCC over the last decade.

Forbes says that his delivery platform offers the promise of a bacterial therapy to treat advanced HCC.

Treating this critical HCC problem and other cancers is why Forbes founded Ernest Pharmaceuticals, which is developing a BacID platform to transport therapeutic drugs directly into HCC cells that are unresectable, or unable to be removed surgically. BacID vectors are engineered to produce the biological therapeutic itself, resulting in an exponential increase of the therapeutic dose in the tumor.

“After this growth phase [increasing the therapeutic dose in the tumor],” says Forbes, “the bacteria will invade the surrounding cancer cells and release the produced compound directly into the cytosol of the tumor cell, where the drug target is. The BacID vector will actively bring the drug compound into the cancer cell, overcoming one of the main obstacles in drug delivery, namely passing the cell membrane.”

The business plan of Ernest Pharmaceuticals is twofold: the generation of Ernest bacterial vectors to deliver biologicals into cancer; and the development of a lead bacterial therapy to treat advanced HCC.

Forbes says that Ernest Pharmaceuticals will develop these therapies in-house to treat advanced HCC as a primary application and extend this to other hard-to-treat tumors, such as pancreatic, ovarian, and metastatic breast cancer.

As Forbes concludes, “Bacterial therapies are a new treatment modality in the fight against solid tumors. The BacID platform can target intracellular pathways that are currently undruggable and create new clinical therapies for patients that have exhausted all options.”

The IALS seed funding is meant to support “high-potential” and “applied” projects to increase the number and quality of campus translational projects ready to receive follow-on federal, state, and private funding (including angel investment, venture capital, center-level awards, and other support). The award is intended to allow the hiring of a research staff scientist, postdoctoral fellow, or graduate student and to support associated lab expenses for approximately one year.

Significant funding for the Manning Award comes from a gift to the College of Natural Sciences by the Manning Family Foundation and from the IALS Seed Fund Program.

Additional contributions come from the College of Natural Sciences, the Berthiaume Center, the Isenberg School of Management, and the Office of Development and Alumni Relations. Recipients of Manning funds are also designated as Manning/IALS Innovation Fellows. (November 2020)