Jean Jiang, Ph.D., stands in a lab.

Deal targets breast cancer, spinal cord injury treatments

By Will Sansom and Lety Laurel

Jean Jiang, Ph.D., stands in a lab.

Research scientists, led by Jean Jiang, Ph.D., discovered antibodies now being used to develop first-in-class treatments for breast cancer metastasis and spinal cord injuries.

In what is being called the most financially significant agreement in university history, UT Health San Antonio has entered into a landmark licensing deal to develop new treatments for breast cancer and spinal cord injuries.

The deal is worth up to $114 million.

UT Health San Antonio and UTHealth Houston granted exclusive global licenses for two unique biologic therapeutics to AlaMab Therapeutics Inc., a subsidiary of CSPC Pharmaceutical Group Ltd. of China. In exchange, the company will make an initial upfront payment of $4.5 million to license the two antibodies, discovered by researcher Jean Jiang, Ph.D., Ashbel Smith Professor at UT Health San Antonio.

Should the novel, first-in-class therapies prove successful, “the prospect of mitigating or even curing these debilitating conditions becomes possible,” said UT Health San Antonio President William L. Henrich, M.D., MACP.

One antibody can inhibit the neural inflammatory reaction and suppress further damage after spinal cord injury, which can help in recovery. The second antibody is useful in breast cancer metastasis to the bone.

The discoveries stem from research Dr. Jiang began in 1991 in response to a New York Times article about gap junctions, which serve as connectors between cells. Though there was a belief that these connections could be used for cancer treatment, there wasn’t much work being done in the area.

“I realized this is not really getting into prime time to be able to get into treatment of human disease for any translational research,” she said. “There was so much that was unknown in basic science about these channels.”

This scientific gap presented Dr. Jiang an opportunity. In the decades that followed, she worked with the goal of someday translating her research into drug development.

She began focusing on a group of proteins called connexins, which form gap junctions in the cell. These proteins play an important role in physiological and disease-related processes in neuronal and skeletal tissues.

She developed antibodies to test in animal models.

“They worked out really well,” she said. “We tested one in the injury model and found that it could help mice recover from injury. We tested the other one in the bone metastasis model of breast cancer and this antibody showed efficacy in suppressing cancer growth.”

Bone tissue is a common place for cancer metastasis. Most often, the cancer originates in the breast, prostate or lungs. Once cancer has spread into the bone, survival rates plummet. There are few therapy options. Likewise, there is no drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration to effectively treat spinal cord injuries.

“We felt like we had the potential to one day create a new drug to help patients. It was a very exciting moment,” Dr. Jiang said. “But it was a gradual discovery. We had to do the good science to make sure we understood fully the new mechanism of how it works. We had to do lots of work to back it up.”

After success in animal models with mouse antibodies, Dr. Jiang partnered with Zhiqiang An, Ph.D., from UTHealth Houston, to humanize the antibodies for preclinical and in vivo efficacy studies.

Preclinical research will continue for the next couple of years, she said. They will optimize the drugs, then test them again in animal models to explore disease indications. Eventually, they will submit the drugs to the FDA for approval to enter clinical trials. The drug development process could take a decade or more. And there is no guarantee of success. But Dr. Jiang said she’s confident in her research.

“Drug development is a long process and the chance of failure is so high, but we feel that if these can be developed, then we certainly will provide treatment for patients where currently there is no treatment,” she said.

“I always have had it in my mind that the research I’m doing in the lab all these years will one day help humanity. One day I will be able to help patients.”

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