So, what is a guy with an undergrad degree in Russian language, an MS in marine chemistry and a PhD in chemical oceanography doing in Iowa City? Quite possibly, curing cancer. Or, more specifically one certain type of cancer: metastatic melanoma.
“This is the fastest growing cancer in the world,” said Michael Schultz, “It’s the most diagnosed type of cancer in young adults. If detected early, the cure rate is high. If it spreads, the prognosis is poor.” Last year Schultz’s company, Viewpoint Molecular Technology, was the first recipient of the Iowa Innovation Corporation’s new commitment to match program, which provided a $25,000 grant as match for their successful Phase I SBIR through the National Institute of Health. Additionally Viewpoint recently received a $100,000 award from the Iowa Economic Development Authority’s Demonstration Fund. Schultz, a professor of radiology at the University of Iowa, is co-founder and chief science officer of Viewpoint. Before coming to Iowa City in 2006, he was with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), where he was a scientist in the Nuclear Medicine Standards Program. Viewpoint is not his first foray into the business of science. When he was with NIST, Schultz was working closely with a physician scientist who was interested in his background in radiochemistry, especially the ability to target radiation to specific cancer cells. “He convinced me that I could have a significant positive impact on people’s lives. He was going to be my mentor; we wrote a grant together that secured the seed funding we need to get started. Unfortunately, he died of colon cancer before we got there. He was a wonderful, inspiring mentor and that was hard.” But with that experience, Schultz was bitten by the business bug, and has been working on the commercialization of that idea ever since. “I really like business,” Schultz said, “but I wanted more control of the creative part. For me, science is most rewarding when you have the latitude to explore things that could have a big impact.” So he and his wife, Frances Johnson, chief medical officer of Viewpoint, moved to Iowa City, where he believes the climate is good for projects like his. “She has previous experience in startup companies,” Schultz said, “and we needed a place to set up shop together.” Schultz believes Iowa City is a great place for this particular type of startup. “It’s a large university with a great reputation in attracting funding for medical research. It attracts great students. And the research infrastructure is top notch.” In addition, there are some quality-oflife aspects that help Iowa City be a good incubator city. “You’re never stuck in a traffic jam. Those types of things help you to be more productive in your work.” Schultz believes the university is getting better and better at encouraging faculty professional development in the direction of entrepreneurship. “You are being encouraged in an area that used to be considered fringe-y faculty behavior, this commercialization of your science, making the role of the entrepreneurial academic more mainstream.” Connecting Nuclear Weapons and the Depths of the Ocean What do nuclear weapons and oceanography have to do with cancer therapy? “The Russians have a long legacy of radiochemistry,” Schultz said. “What we are doing is in reality an offshoot of the cold war. Many of the radionuclides that we now use for medical imaging and therapy are directly or indirectly related to nuclear fuels and weapons. We might not have had this without the arms race.” Schultz also connects his work in oceanography at Florida State University, where part of his studies involved the radiochemistry of naturally-occurring radioactive materials in the production of phosphate fertilizers, to his cancer research. “We used naturally occurring radionuclides to understand natural phenomenon and learned about their chemistry, especially related to isolating these radionuclides in very pure forms,” he said. “My background in both of those areas prepared me to use these same radio metals for cancer diagnostics and therapies.” Viewpoint’s product is focused specifically on metastatic melanoma, which is a unique type of cell. The product they produce, under the umbrella term targeted therapy, is an injectable drug that targets and binds to a specific protein in those cells. “We are singling out cancer cells and working to deliver radiation doses only to the cancer cells to the extent possible,” Schultz said. “There is increasing recognition medically and financially that this type of targeted therapy has legs.” The compound, which has been proven in animals, is ready for its first clinical imaging trial in humans, which Schultz sees happening sometime next year. The National Institutes on Health (NIH) in interested in the potential of Viewpoint’s product for commercial development. “But they need to see infrastructures, bricks and mortar,” Schultz explained. “They like to see that you have the people, space and equipment to be able to conduct your research.” Viewpoint has recently moved into lab space with the University BioVentures Center in Coralville. “The NIH also want to see that you are marketing savvy and that you have woven yourself into the fabric of industry in an economically viable way. They want to know that there are government funds available. Matching funds are critical. They want to see that you have more money available to you than what they will give you.” The recent commitment to match grant from the Iowa Innovation Corporation and Demonstration Fund award the company received from the Iowa Economic Development Authority helped make that happen. “These awards could have put us over the top for our recent National Institutes of Health Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant. The awards will certainly help us to create a track record of successes that will help our pending and future proposals,” Schultz said.