Flinn Foundation announces recipients of Seed Grants to Promote Translational Research Program

Ten research teams from three Arizona institutions have been awarded $100,000 each from the Flinn Foundation Seed Grants to Promote Translational Research Program to help turn their findings into viable treatments and diagnostics.

Skin and cervical cancer, autism, asthma, respiratory pathogens, severe burn injuries, and antibiotic resistant bacteria are some of the conditions being studied by the Arizona-based scientists and clinicians.

The Flinn Foundation is dedicating $800,000 to fund eight of the projects, while the Tom and Catherine Culley Charitable Trust is contributing $200,000 to support the two cancer-specific projects. At the conclusion of the 18-month grant period, two of the research teams from the program’s ninth cohort will be awarded $100,000 follow-on grants.

The University of Arizona led with five awards, followed by Arizona State University with three, and Mayo Clinic with two. The projects were selected in an open competitive process from 67 proposals—most of which were submitted by researchers at the state’s public universities.

To be eligible for the program, research projects must be directed by investigators from Arizona nonprofit academic- or medical-research institutions or health systems and address significant clinical needs in the areas of diagnostics, medical devices, therapeutics, precision medicine, and health-care delivery.

Mary O’Reilly, Flinn Foundation vice president, bioscience research, said the seed-grants program places an emphasis on accelerating the path to much larger federal awards and to commercialization, which translates into new and improved health-care options and treatments for patients.

“The number and diversity of proposals reflect the breadth of expertise and expanding number of Arizona institutions that prioritize innovative ways to deliver better care,” O’Reilly said. “The sophistication of the research community’s commercialization strategies continues to advance year-over-year.”

Since 2013, the Flinn Foundation has awarded 73 seed grants totaling about $8.5 million.

A panel of 20 external reviewers assisted in selecting projects for funding. To ensure the capacity to assess both scientific merit and potential for clinical and commercial translation, review teams were constructed to possess complementary skills, for instance depth of scientific knowledge, clinical expertise, or some aspect of technology transfer.

In addition to the funding, the program gathers the projects’ leaders as a cohort for quarterly check-ins and workshops, facilitates connections with research and industry experts, and offers grantees membership during the grant period on Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap Steering Committee.

Two previous seed-grant awardees were selected this month to receive $100,000 each in follow-on funding for their projects. The first follow-on grant was awarded to ASU and Mayo Clinic for their joint work in endoscopic imaging. The second follow-on grant was awarded to Translational Genomics Research Institute, or TGen, for its advancement in disease monitoring in pancreatic-cancer patients.

Learn more about the program at flinn.org/seedgrants.

2024 Seed Grants 

Arizona State UniversityAdvancing Novel RXR Agonist to IND-Enabling Studies for Cutaneous T-Cell Lymphoma (CTCL)

Cutaneous T-cell lymphoma (CTCL) is a non-curable heterogenous group of rare cancers. There are approximately 3,000 new cases in the United States each year. The project team has discovered RXR agonist ASU-052317 as a novel lead candidate for the treatment of CTCL. This project proposes further testing of the compound. Bexarotene is FDA-approved for CTCL treatment, but it has several significant toxicities, especially elevated triglycerides and cholesterol. A safer, effective daily oral drug for CTCL would be an immediate market leader with hopes to deliver both commercial success and improved patient outcomes. Principal Investigator: Carl Wagner, Ph.D. 

Arizona State UniversityMetagenomics Sequencing to Improve Microbiota Transplant for Autism 

About 40% of children and adults with autism—which impacts 1 in 36 U.S. children—also have chronic gastrointestinal disorders, including constipation, diarrhea, bloating, and abdominal pain that greatly reduce quality of life. The project team has developed and patented a novel treatment, Microbiota Transplant Therapy (MTT), and has conducted Phase 1 and 2 clinical trials demonstrating good safety and efficacy in both reduction of GI and autism symptoms. This project proposes to conduct whole-genome metagenomics analysis of 200 fecal samples from 50 adults with autism before, during, and after treatment, to be compared with 40 typically developing adults. Principal Investigator: Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown, Ph.D. 

Arizona State UniversityNovel Therapeutic to Treat Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria 

Each year in the U.S. alone, at least 2.8 million people are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The project team has discovered a new molecule, MC121, with an unprecedented mechanism of action that combats any kind of bacteria, including antibiotic-resistant pathogens. In contrast to traditional antibiotics that kill bacteria directly and against which bacteria eventually develop defensive means to survive, MC121 increases the function of natural bacterial enemies in our bodies, or professional phagocytes. Because MC121 does not present a direct threat to bacteria, the development of resistance is unlikely. The project will continue the development of the MC121 molecule. Principal Investigator: Tatiana Ugarova, Ph.D. 

Mayo ClinicA Point-of-Care Test to Guide Asthma Therapy 

Asthma is a lung disorder that affects about 9% of the U.S. population. A diagnostic test is needed to accurately measure inflammation in the lungs, to be used to personalize therapy for people with asthma. The research team has developed a test to be completed with the patient in the clinic or potentially at home to measure inflammation in the lungs by sampling a small amount of nasal mucous with a swab and placing it on a test strip with results available in minutes. The goal of this project is to perform additional technological and clinical validation studies using this test. Principal Investigator: Elizabeth Jacobsen, Ph.D. 

Mayo ClinicGene Expression Profiling of Cutaneous Squamous Cell Carcinoma to Predict Poor Outcomes  

There is a need for more accurate identification of tumors with metastatic potential to truly characterize risk in Cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma (cSCC) patients. Tumors classified as intermediate and high-risk by these systems are responsible for most metastases and disease-specific death. Metastatic cSCC’s 5-year survival rate is 25-35% and accounts for more than 8,700 deaths annually. These designations may warrant further invasive tests and procedures, though only one in five will ultimately have a poor outcome. This project proposes the development of a gene expression assay using both RNA and DNA sequencing to identify unique genes that drive metastasis and will predict outcome. Principal Investigator: Aaron Mangold, M.D., FAAD

University of Arizona: Development of Smart External Ventricular Drain (EVD) 

This proposal aims to develop a “smart” external ventricular drain, or EVD, composed of a flow sensor developed previously by the principal investigator and an accelerometer, or an activity monitoring sensor. An EVD is used in hospital settings to relieve pressure on the brain caused when patients experience tumors, cysts, bleeding, infection, or trauma that reduces the body’s ability to drain cerebrospinal fluid away from the brain. Current EVDs require labor-intensive monitoring to avoid draining too much or too little. A “smart” EVD could enable real-time monitoring of key drainage details to monitor patients, contribute to treatment decisions, and reduce nursing workload.  Principal Investigator: Eniko Enikov, Ph.D. 

University of Arizona: eNAMPT-Neutralizing Monoclonal Antibody (ALT-100), as a Novel Treatment of Chorioamnionitis 

Novel therapeutic approaches are needed to reduce the devastating morbidity associated with intra-amniotic inflammation/infection (IAI), or chorioamnionitis, in pregnancy—an infection of the placenta and amniotic fluid during pregnancy that occurs when bacteria cross the cervical barrier and enter the amniotic fluid. This project proposes to use a monoclonal antibody (ALT-100) to neutralize extracellular nicotinamide phosphoribosyltransferase (eNAMPT) with the goal of suppressing fetal inflammatory response syndrome and improving neonatal outcomes. IAI is involved in approximately 30% of preterm births (< 37 weeks) and a majority of extreme preterm births. Principal Investigator: Mohamed N. Ahmed, M.D., Ph.D. 

University of ArizonaExtremely Rapid, Ultrasensitive, Multiplex Tests for Pathogens 

This project proposes to utilize the “saline gargle” COVID-19 PCR testing platform developed at University of Arizona to test for additional pathogens, allowing samples to be collected and tested by anyone, anywhere. The technology improves speed and sensitivity, leading to rapid antigen or RNA/DNA tests with sensitivities rivaling those of PCR, but with results in about five minutes. To date, there is no all-in-one test for a larger number of respiratory pathogens affecting the public, like SARS-CoV-2, influenza, RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), strep throat, and common-cold rhinoviruses and coronaviruses. The goal is for this multiplex rapid antigen test to be commercialized. Principal Investigator: Michael Worobey, Ph.D. 

University of Arizona: Inhibiting Scar Formation and Promoting Skin Regeneration Using a Topical Focal Adhesion Kinase Inhibitor (FAKI): Final Studies for FDA IND Approval 

The project team has developed a focal adhesion kinase inhibitor (FAKI) that can be applied to severe burn wounds with or without split thickness skin graft to reduce fibrosis and enable scarless regeneration. This therapy can be simply unpackaged, soaked in saline, and used identically to standard-of-care dressings. Today, there are no standardized pharmacological options for patients with deep burn injuries to prevent exuberant fibrosis and contracture and there is an urgent need to develop effective therapies to alleviate scar formation and improve outcomes. Principal Investigator: Geoffrey Gurtner, M.D. 

University of Arizona: Stainless Pap Test for Cervical Cancer Screening 

Cervical cancer remains a prominent threat to women’s health and current screening methods, like the Pap and HPV tests, while effective, are burdened by logistical challenges, especially in low-resource settings. This project proposes a revolutionary Deep Ultraviolet Microscope (dUVM) for a rapid, stainless Pap test. This innovative technique eliminates the need for staining cervical specimens, thereby saving time and money. Once a specimen is collected, it is imaged using the dUVM, analyzed, and a diagnosis is rendered within just 10 minutes. This immediacy, paired with the removal of logistical complexities, can expand access to timely and accurate cervical cancer screening. Principal Investigator: Rongguang Liang, Ph.D. 

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