University of Utah molecular pharmaceutics professor Mingnan Chen and his colleagues published a paper in 2019 detailing their work to develop a new treatment for autoimmune diseases that would target unhealthy immune cells while leaving normal, beneficial immune cells alone.

After publication, Chen received letters and emails from people around the world inquiring about potential clinical trials, hoping they would soon have better options to treat autoimmune diseases. Current treatments target all immune cells, including normal cells, and leave patients with chronic immune deficiency. “Obviously, they’re not as satisfied with their current treatment,” Chen said. “These are real people. They’re not just some phrases on the paper.”

Autoimmune diseases like Type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis are relatively common, and Chen has seen the diseases impact people in his life—his friend’s son has Type 1 diabetes and another friend has multiple sclerosis. In the case of Type 1 diabetes, many people develop symptoms as children. “Then their whole life they are being affected by the disease,” Chen said. “I just feel that maybe with the basic science of Type 1 diabetes and other autoimmune disorders we have, we can do something for that.”

These are real people. They’re not just some phrases on the paper.

Chen has continued to research treatments even after the successful publication in 2019. “We are passionate about developing protein-based therapeutics, antibody-based therapeutics,” Chen said. “We do that by integrating the knowledge about protein engineering, pharmaceuticals and immunology together.”

Chen’s interest in translational research and therapeutics began early in his career when he asked his Ph.D. advisor what the purpose was behind their basic immunology research, and his advisor responded that the research could help develop vaccines. While he didn’t have the opportunity to develop therapeutics in his Ph.D. program, he dove into translational research during his postdoc, and it helped that his postdoc mentor had experience starting a company.

Now, Chen describes commercialization as necessary and rewarding. “The work we are doing has great purpose.”

Within a few years of coming to the U, Chen disclosed his first inventions to the PIVOT Center and has been working with the office ever since. He called his relationship with PIVOT a “professional collaboration.”

PIVOT Associate Director of Innovation & Commercialization Aaron Duffy has worked closely with Chen. “The ultimate goal is to give Dr. Chen the ability to respond with hope to those seeking his solutions,” Duffy said.

PIVOT has assisted Chen’s lab with patent applications, corporate connections, and even helped fund his research through the Ascender Grant which PIVOT offers to help bridge the gap between research and commercialization.

“The clinical need for Dr. Chen’s exciting research is exactly why PIVOT Center has structured its Ascender Grant and Therapeutics Accelerator programs to support the University of Utah’s faculty,” Duffy said. “This convergence of development, funding, and expertise, overlaid with the same passion as Dr. Chen’s to improve patients’ lives, breaks through the traditional barriers in bringing in the right partner at these early stages to propel desperately needed therapies to the clinic.”

Chen said PIVOT and Duffy have been great partners as he works towards his goals. “We now have this goal or this drive to really promote something into the clinical trial or even clinical approval,” he said. “There’s just so much more we can do together with PIVOT Center.”

Chen’s research has also benefited from the relationships he has developed with clinicians who treat those with autoimmune diseases. Chen said clinicians can offer scientists insights that they wouldn’t receive by just reading other scientific papers written by people who don’t see patients, and they can also help convince investors that there is a market for a new therapeutic.

We now have this goal or this drive to really promote something into the clinical trial or even clinical approval. ... There’s just so much more we can do together with PIVOT Center.

Chen has found that beyond the benefit of benefiting patients’ lives, his work in translation and commercialization has also improved his research. “They can raise a new question for your research direction,” he said. “Maybe it is not a very hard technology, but you may overlook that. Maybe you just make a simple switch, but that actually adds a tremendous value for your discovery.”

His commercialization efforts have also opened doors for new funding opportunities—like PIVOT’s Ascender Grant. Companies that license technologies from the university might also contract research back to the lab to support further research, and federal funding agencies require commercialization for some grants. “It’s another avenue we should not overlook,” he said. “There can be rewards in the long term and short term.”

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