Researchers involved in a Matching Grants Research Program (MGRP) project pairing Ibis Therapeutics and the University of South Florida (USF) may be on track to developing a cure for cancer.

STING (stimulator of interferon genes) is a natural protein within the body’s immune system that acts as the first line of defense against bacteria and viruses. When activated, STING causes white blood cells to release cytokine, a chemical that can destroy tumors.

“In the cancer treatment industry, the c-word – cure – is used very cautiously, but it might actually be relevant with a pathway like STING,” said Sam Shrivastava, CEO of IBIS Therapeutics.

Shrivastava and the Ibis Therapeutics team are working alongside USF researchers Wayne Guida, Ph.D., and Kenyon Daniel, Ph.D., to develop an oral pill that treats metastasized cancer by activating STING   proteins. Researchers leverage computational chemistry, virtual screening and machine learning algorithms to determine a compound’s viability. Still in its early stages, the treatment would bear applications for a wide variety of conditions, especially for difficult-to-treat, undruggable cancers, or those with very poor survival rates.

“My own background in computational drug discovery has allowed me to reengage at the ground level with great students and business leaders like Sam, and that is very exciting for me,” Guida said. “I’m looking forward to a long-term partnership that uses the highly innovative drug-discovery technology that we have developed to produce drugs that will make a significant impact on the welfare of patients.”

Many pharmaceutical companies are testing preclinical-stage drugs injected directly into individual tumors. However, no one has found an oral drug that can be taken as a pill.  When cancer metastasizes and tumors multiply within the body, injecting individual sites can be impractical and ineffective. If the team is successful, its STING-activated oral pill would be much more effective and could be the best-in-class drug.

“We’re not a large company that can afford to spend millions of dollars,” Shrivastava said. “Without the matching support, I don’t think our program would be alive today.”

Matching funds from The Corridor have enabled the team to hire three student researchers, resulting in the engagement of more collaborators from different perspectives as well as the development of budding leaders within USF’s highly gifted pool of Ph.D. students.

“I couldn’t be prouder of our graduate student researchers,” said Shrivastava. “The amount of learning that has taken place is phenomenal. We are building a talent pool in Tampa that will be very valuable to the scientific community.”

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