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Einstein Biochemist Receives Funding to Create Drugs That Target Cancer Cells

Matthew Levy, PhD, assistant professor of biochemistry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, has been awarded more than $700,000 by Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) for his high-risk/high-reward cancer research. Dr. Levy’s work will focus on creating self-guiding drugs that target only cancer cells, thus eliminating or significantly reducing serious or unpleasant side effects of current therapies.

Dr. Levy is one of 13 young scientists nationwide selected to receive a total of $9.68 million through SU2C’s Innovative Research Grant program, which supports the next generation of cancer research leaders.

“The Stand Up To Cancer Innovative Research Grant program is giving us the chance to test out our ideas on how to make current drugs better,” said Dr. Levy. “In the end, our hope is that this will translate to more effective treatments and an increased quality of life for patients.”

SU2C’s funding model for the Innovative Research Grants was designed specifically to support work that utilizes new ideas and new approaches to solve critical problems in cancer research. These innovative projects are characterized as “high-risk” because they challenge existing paradigms and because, in order to receive a grant, the applicants were not required to have already conducted a portion of the research resulting in an established base of evidence. Most conventional funding mechanisms require such evidence upfront. If successful, these projects have the potential for “high-reward” in terms of saving lives.

Dr. Levy’s research will focus on creating a new type of targeted therapeutic agent to treat cancers. Current chemotherapies capable of killing rapidly dividing cancer cells also kill normal, healthy cells, leading to undesirable side effects. Thirty-seven-year-old Dr. Levy proposes to tackle this challenge by developing a new type of compound that can selectively identify, bind to and destroy cancer cells. While the immediate focus will be on prostate cancer, the technologies developed will be broadly applicable to most other cancers.

Dr. Levy’s efforts will center on aptamers, a newer class of targeting molecule that can specifically bind to particular proteins found on the surface of cancer cells. The aptamers will then be combined with existing FDA-approved drugs, creating a single molecule called an aptamer-prodrug. Upon binding to their target, these aptamer-prodrugs will release the drug cargo directly into the cell, thereby minimizing systemic toxicity.

Because cellular uptake is often linked to trafficking to lysosomes, a cellular compartment that contains digestive enzymes, Dr. Levy will also be collaborating with Ana Maria Cuervo, MD, PhD, an expert in lysosome biology. Dr. Cuervo is professor of developmental and molecular biology, of anatomy and structural biology, and of medicine at Einstein.

Additionally, Dr. Levy will devise new methods to develop aptamer-prodrugs that can home in directly on tumor cells. If successful, these methods will allow the production of aptamer-prodrugs that could target almost any type of cell and cancer.

“The translation of Dr. Levy’s expertise in aptamer technologies to the treatment of cancer builds upon his initial studies focused on prostate cancer,” said I. David Goldman, MD, director of the Albert Einstein Cancer Center and the Susan Resnick Fisher Professor in Brain Cancer Research. “This represents an exciting new avenue of research at Einstein directed to the development of therapies that specifically target cancer cells.”

“This award to Dr. Levy is a highly appropriate honor for his novel research applying chemical biology approaches to cancer problems,” said Vern Schramm, PhD, the Ruth Merns Professor of Biochemistry, who recruited Levy to join Einstein’s faculty in 2007. “His research typifies the integration of new technologies across disciplines to have impact on fundamental chemistry principles as well as in human disease.”

In receiving the SU2C grant, Dr. Levy joins 12 researchers from seven other institutions, including Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Children’s Hospital Boston and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute.

Dr. Levy received his bachelor’s degree in biochemistry in 1995 and his master’s degree in chemistry in 1997, both from the University of California, San Diego. He was awarded his doctorate in molecular biology in 2003 from the University of Texas, where he also completed his postdoctoral training in 2007. Dr. Levy’s research interests are in using biological, chemical and combinatorial approaches to understand fundamental biological interactions and designing novel diagnostics and therapeutics.