A Singapore businessman plans to make a multimillion-dollar investment in a groundbreaking new start-up company that will further develop basic cancer treatment research conducted at Johns Hopkins.
During a visit to the Homewood campus on June 27, Ang Tiong Loi signed a letter of intent to invest in a new company dedicated to developing a group of naturally occurring compounds isolated from creosote bushes that have shown some early signs of promise as cancer treatments.
Ru Chih Huang, a biology professor in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, and John Gnabre, a postdoctoral fellow, first identified the compounds as potential anti-viral medications. Huang; Jonathan Heller, a graduate student of Huang; and other members of Huang's laboratory have since found evidence, currently in preparation for publication, that the compounds might be useful as cancer treatments.
"One of the first objectives of the new company will be to design and conduct FDA-approved clinical trials of these substances," said Nina Siegler, director of the university's Office of Technology Transfer.
Ang, whose primary business is real estate, is a native of Singapore who knows of Huang both through family connections and through Huang's reputation in Asia. Earlier this year, The World Journal, a worldwide Chinese-language newspaper, named Huang one of the "100 Most Notable Chinese North Americans of the Century."
"Mr. Ang is supporting this because he believes in the program and in Dr. Huang," George Lee, an American representative of Ang, said. "He's impressed by Dr. Huang and her dedication."
Lee stressed that although the new company is a business, an atypical, almost philanthropic spirit is envisioned for its endeavors.
Lee and Siegler say the intent of the new company is to keep the price of the drug as low as possible.
"Since this is a modification of a natural product, we think it could be manufactured fairly inexpensively," Siegler explained. "That still has to be confirmed, as does the product's potential as a cancer treatment, but we're hopeful that if this works out, we might be able to price any resulting drugs in a way that makes them available to all the people of the world and still makes returns for the university and the investor."
A number of contractual arrangements have yet to be made, according to Siegler, but when they are completed, Lee will supervise the founding of the company. The university, which holds the patent rights, will grant an exclusive license to the new company to use those inventions. There will be contracts between the university and the company for Hopkins to continue work on new drug analogs and clinical development.
"Most of the money will go into clinical trials, not into corporate overhead," Siegler noted. "It wouldn't be fair to call it a virtual company, but much of what goes on will be dedicated to seeing if this compound can work in a variety of human cancers."
As an example, Siegler cited tentative plans to hire a contract research organization to help implement clinical trials that can meet with FDA approval.
Ted Poehler, vice provost for research at Hopkins, said arrangements for the new start-up have come together with unusual speed.
"There are a number of parties, including Mr. Ang, who are very impressed with the work Dr. Huang and her team have done so far, and how far they've been able to take it," Poehler said.