Newellink searches for new cancer therapies
Curing cancer may seem like a lofty goal, but M. Karen Newell is not going to let that stop her.
Newell, who earned her doctorate in microbiology and immunology from the University of Colorado Health Science Center in Denver, is working on patented technology that involves researching the unique principles of tumor cells in order to find new treatments.
“I could not be more passionate about trying to get the principles we are discovering involved in clinical therapy,” Newell said. “I cannot think of anything that would be more rewarding than my work.”
The company that owns the research, Newellink Inc., has won Celebrate Technology’s Breakthrough Patented Technology Award-because Newell’s research, if commercialized, would have the greatest economic and cultural impact.
The technologies involve using therapies that are based on the particular metabolic strategies used by cancer cells, specifically, drug-resistant cancer cells. Newellink Inc. was founded by Newell, investor Vladimir Weinstein, biotechnology patent attorney Robert Berliner, accountant attorney Dennis Geselowitz, UCCS biology department chairman Robert Melamede and interim CEO Richard Duke. Newell is the scientific director of the CU Institute for Bioenergetics at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, among other things.
She is an associate professor of biology, as well as a Clement L. and Margaret Markert endowed professor of biology at UCCS.
“As a group, the founders of Newellink all have a unified goal-which is to get this new strategy publicly available and into the clinics,” Newell said. “It’s our primary motivation more than anything else. Perhaps that makes them unique: Every founder feels the same way.”
The self-professed workaholic said that current cancer treatments focus on all the wrong details about tumor cells-chemotherapies, for instance, are based on the rapid division of cancerous cells, which is not necessarily their most unique feature.
“Treatments, then, have been kind of toxic, killing hair follicles and making your hair fall out, and affecting the lining of the gut and making you really sick.”
Newell has been working for more than eight years on finding new characteristics of cancer cells, both at the University of Vermont and at UCCS. Specifically, she works on extensively designating the strategies that tumor cells use as a rationale for different therapies.
“Several have been identified and are in the preclinical phase of investigation,” she said. “We have identified compounds that uniquely target cancer-specific mechanisms, and looked at them in a test tubes, and looked at them in animal models. We’re almost ready to go to trial.”
Although she has been working within the immune system realm for much longer, Newell has been focused on the intersection between unique metabolic strategies and the immunological signature of a cell since the fall of 1996.
Her first observations of the link took place at the University of Vermont College of Medicine-and those first invention disclosures were technically the university’s property. Then her research was supported by the Immune Response Corp. in Carlsbad, Calif.-the company that Jonas Salk, known for his polio vaccine, set up-for more than three years.
Then she was doing research at UCCS, which owned part of the technology, as did University of Vermont. There was a lot of pressure to sell bits of her research to the highest bidder. Newell has had to fight tooth and nail to keep her research together.
“I wanted it all under one umbrella,” she said. “The research has applications in there for many diseases & neuroregeneration, cancer visibility and drug treatments for a lot of things.”
The other thing she fights against is the sometimes condescending attitude from fellow academics about the “commercialization” of her research. But Newell said she wants to do whatever it takes to get her research into the public sphere, where it will have a chance at making a difference in peoples’ lives.
“The commercialization of these things is a really good thing. We started writing disclosures a long time ago, and I can remember people asking me, ‘Why are you doing that? Are you trying to make money?’” she said. “But it’s the only way to do it. I just want it out there. It’s taken a long time for that message to sink in, both to academics and in the public eye.”
It’s no coincidence that the man who founded Immune Research Corp., where some of her research was funded, also is, in many respects, Newell’s hero.
“Jonas Salk recognized that the only way anything gets into the clinic is to become commercially viable,” she said. “[Academics] are often looked at-as if we do something entrepreneurial, we’re going to the dark side. But it’s really the only way to get anything into the clinic, ever.”
Newell, 53, has lived in Colorado Springs since June 1999. She is married to UCCS laboratory research coordinator Jeff Rogers, and has three children, Rachel, 30, Evan, 27, and Susannah, 11.
“[Colorado Springs] is an incredibly nurturing environment; I feel very fortunate to live here,” she said. “It’s a great place. I’m overwhelmed by the support I’ve received.”