Art of Translation
Maurizio Pellecchia seeks to turn medical research into reality
By Iqbal Pittalwala
Maurizio Pellecchia arrived at UC Riverside in September 2015 bearing a coveted gift that has found numerous applications in chemistry, biochemistry, and bioengineering: a 700 megahertz nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer. This high-resolution instrument helps “translate” fundamental research findings into tangible health outcomes in oncology, neurodegeneration, and other areas by allowing scientists to precisely determine the physical and chemical properties of molecules with potential medical applications.
As a professor of biomedical sciences in UCR’s School of Medicine and director of the new Center for Molecular and Translational Medicine (MolMed), Pellecchia, 49, occupies the Daniel Hays Endowed Chair in Cancer Research, which carries a five-year appointment. The endowment was made possible through a pledge from Dr. Daniel M. Hays, who is renowned for having advanced the field of pediatric surgery.
Before he joined UCR, Pellecchia served as professor of chemical biology and associate director of translational research at the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute in La Jolla, where he helped develop potential therapeutic drugs for cancer and neurodegeneration. A native of Naples, Italy, Pellecchia previously founded AnCoreX Therapeutics, a San Diego-based drug discovery services company. He was also the scientific founder of Iron Horse Therapeutics Inc., a developer of novel therapeutics to fight Lou Gehrig’s disease. In addition to his work at UCR, Pellecchia is planning and fundraising for a new Riverside-based oncology firm.
Pellecchia’s UCR laboratory develops agents that, along with chemotherapeutic drugs, can selectively kill cancer cells. Cancer research remains Pellecchia’s lifelong passion, energizing his laboratory’s research in structure-based drug design. He spoke to UCR Magazine to explain his center’s mission and provide an update.
What drew you to UCR?
At UCR, I am able to carve out a unique niche. We develop sophisticated biophysics-driven chemical methods to derive pharmacological tools that we would like to translate into therapeutics. We use chemistry to understand biology. Our School of Medicine is the perfect place for this. UCR was, therefore, very attractive for my research endeavors. During my first visit, I met with postdoctoral scholars and students — all of whom were proud and enthusiastic about being here. I saw immediately that I would have a terrific opportunity to teach a new generation of students and make a difference. I called my wife that day and told her I had found my dream place.
What is translational medicine, and why does UCR need a center devoted to it?
Translational medicine is the bridge between research and development. MolMed is a multidisciplinary center that brings together researchers and clinicians from across campus to help improve the health of individuals. We accomplish this by translating basic findings into diagnostic tools or therapeutics — drugs, treatment, or diagnostics — that benefit human health. Most scientists know about the “R” in R&D, but not about the “D.” We are bringing venture capitalists to our meetings to listen to what projects we have going and provide advice. Our goal is to educate ourselves about translational medicine and learn how to translate our basic projects into forms that could enter a pipeline for potential commercial-ization, ultimately benefitting patients. One goal of our medical school is to bridge clinical research with basic sciences. A center like MolMed is crucially needed at UCR.
How are things going so far?
MolMed is very young; we launched only in March 2017. We had a first round of grant funding that generated three awards. We have also had several research papers published in top journals. In a short time, we have generated good momentum. By early next year, we expect to have six projects going. The process of drug development and translational medicine, in general, is long and unpredictable, with a number of obstacles along the way. In MolMed, we have set up two funds: a “trans fund,” which is like a seed fund to help set a research project on its way, and a “late fund,” which would allow a research project that is already on its feet to go deeper. An endowment that could support us with the late fund would be extraordinary.
UCR’s School of Medicine is also very young. What are the advantages and challenges to that?
I have experienced no challenge here that I had not expected. Our main challenge is how to bridge clinical science and basic research. Both camps speak different languages, which poses difficulties. With translational medicine, these camps would find common ground. Another challenge is that we don’t have our own hospital. We are affiliated with several local hospitals, which can create unique challenges as well. Ideally, for our future hires we need to concentrate on research clinicians. Schools of medicine successfully doing translational medicine are populated with research clinicians.
How has this endowed chair benefitted your research? What have the funds enabled?
It caps for me nearly 20 years of cancer research — an extremely competitive field. The endowment allows my lab to take risks in research and engage in bold projects that funding agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, may not want to support. Endowments give scholars the flexibility and freedom to accelerate research. The Daniel Hays Endowed Chair for Cancer Research has allowed me the kind of flexibility I have never had before.
What do you most hope to learn in your lifetime?
My lifelong dream has been to say that a patient was helped directly by contributions from my lab. I joke with my wife that should that happen, I will retire, having accomplished what I had set out to do. Not many scientists in translational medicine, an incredibly slow process, can say they have saved lives or improved human health. Still, this remains my major goal. I can say we are on our way, but my mission in oncology is far from fulfilled. Several of our discoveries have been used by others to develop drugs, but I want to have a more direct impact. In the next five years, I want to reach this goal.
Visit molmed.ucr.edu for more information on the Center for Molecular and Translational Medicine