Wall Street funds cancer-research up-and-comers

Bill Ackman invests in young research scientists. Here are the first six to benefit.

By Barbara Benson (Crain’s New York Business) – Home to some of the top medical institutions in the country, New York City attracts millions of dollars in annual federal research funding. So why does Bill Ackman—a billionaire hedge-fund manager now in the headlines for his bid to buy Botox maker Allergan—think the city’s scientists can be better and bolder?

“I’m a huge believer in young people,” Mr. Ackman said last week, describing his hopes to provide funding for “the most talented researchers at a critical stage in their careers.”

New York state has attracted $628 million this year from the National Institutes of Health. The federal agency funds incremental research projects, not risky ones. It also favors midcareer scientists, not young researchers.

Mr. Ackman, who runs Pershing Square Capital Management, funds the Pershing Square Foundation. Last year, it teamed up with the Sohn Conference Foundation in a $25 million alliance, whose first initiative is the Pershing Square Sohn Prize for Young Investigators in Cancer Research. The inaugural class of six winners will be introduced Monday at the annual Sohn Investment Conference on pediatric cancer research.

“These are the stars of the research world, who don’t have a lot of red-carpet moments like this,” said Olivia Flatto, executive director of the Pershing Square Sohn Cancer Research Alliance.

The Sohn Conference Foundation is a longtime supporter of cancer research in New York City. “We are looking forward to great things from this group of scientists as we help position them to make their big, bold ideas reality,” said Evan Sohn, the group’s vice president.

Risky projects
The prize is aimed at young New York City area scientists, and the six chosen from 64 applicants will each receive $200,000 annually for three years. The money will fund projects that are “innovative and a little risky,” the type that the NIH avoids, added Ms. Flatto.

The new prize doesn’t just aim to support young researchers’ boldest work; it also fosters collaboration among scientists, academics, investors, and the biotech and pharmaceutical industries. Foundations often back cancer research, but the Pershing Square Sohn Prize goes further.

“We will expose scientists at an early stage in their careers to mentors in industry. This type of relationship usually only happens later in their careers,” said Ms. Flatto, herself a former medical researcher.

The early-career mentoring helps scientists to step outside the academic world to see drug discovery from another viewpoint. “It’s like learning a new language a little earlier, so you become more fluent earlier,” said Ms. Flatto. “This early collaboration exposes them to relationships.”

Rare disease
Dr. Smogorzewska, a physician-scientist who heads Rockefeller’s Laboratory of Genome Maintenance, works with a rare genetic disease called Fanconi anemia. Children with the disease are highly prone to cancer.

“We are getting very unique insights into how the tumors develop,” said Dr. Smogorzewska, who is 41.

The native of Poland has an NIH grant, but foundation backing, she said, “allows you to be bold and take risks that the NIH would not allow.”

She will use her prize money mostly to fund the cost of expensive technology such as gene sequencing.

“I wouldn’t be able to get NIH funding for this,” she said. “I’m new in the genomics field, and we don’t have results yet.”

The winners, and their areas of research are:

  • Emily Bernstein, Ph.D., Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Focus is on investigating the role of epigenetic factors involved in melanoma drug resistance by using a new high-throughput loss of function study to interrogate targetable chromatin factors that mediate drug resistance.
  • Adolfo Ferrando, M.D., Ph.D., Columbia University Medical Center. Focus is on analyzing the genetics of human leukemia by using new tools to analyze the function of critical unannotated genomic sequences, opening new venues for the development of targeted therapies for cancer.
  • Ross Levine, M.D., Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Focus is on assessing how mutations in specific epigenetic proteins contribute to human cancer and to probe these mutated cancers for specific vulnerabilities.
  • Agata Smogorzewska, M.D., Ph.D., Rockefeller University. Focus is on studying the inability of DNA to repair and its contribution to cancer development.
  • Lloyd Trotman, Ph.D., Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Focus is on the evolution of cancer genomes as cells metastasize through the body or resist therapy.
  • Sihong Wang, Ph.D., CUNY City College. Focus is on creating an in vitro 3D human tumor model using patients own biopsy samples to search for the most effective drugs for them.

Correction: Bill Ackman funds the Pershing Square Foundation. That fact was misstated in an earlier version of this article published May 5, 2014.

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