Emerging Entrepreneur Award: Georg Weber
Published May 2011
A simple blood test can detect many conditions: diabetes, HIV, hepatitis, to name a few. However, there is no generic blood test to detect cancer ... yet. But one need only look to the winner of the 2011 Emerging Entrepreneur Award, cancer researcher Georg Weber, MD, PhD, for confidence that such a blood test, and other "simple” cancer diagnostics and treatments, could soon become commonplace.
"He is a dedicated cancer scientist who is internationally known for his contributions to the field and he has increased the visibility of the James L. Winkle College of Pharmacy to the cancer research community,” the pharmacy college’s dean, Daniel Acosta, PhD, states in Weber’s nomination.
"No scientist ever thinks that things are progressing quickly enough; we are always impatient,” says Weber, an associate professor in the James L. Winkle College of Pharmacy, whose 15 years of cancer research led to the founding of MetaMol Theranostics Inc., a company that has the potential to change the way physicians diagnose and treat about 30 cancer types, including breast, pancreatic, ovarian and other malignant tumors.
"It’s taken a chunk of my life, but it was a logical progression,” Weber says of an academic medicine and entrepreneurial career path that began with earning his MD, PhD, at the University of Wuerzburg, Germany, in 1988.
Although Weber, a native of Germany, was licensed to practice clinical medicine, he instead turned his eyes toward teaching and research in the U.S., with his first postdoctoral appointment in 1989 to the department of biochemistry at the University of South Alabama. A year later he moved on to Harvard Medical School, where he held research associate and then faculty positions in both the departments of biochemistry and pathology for over 10 years. These appointments were followed by a brief stint at Tufts University before coming to UC as a cancer and cell biologist in 2004. Weber’s cancer research currently is supported by two grants from the U.S. Department of Defense Cancer Program.
Weber’s interest and dedication to cancer research—more specifically to cancer metastasis, or how cancer spreads—grew "paradigm by paradigm” over the years, he says, but at UC, the unique opportunity for clinical applications arose. That dedication proved itself in 2006, when Weber led a team of cancer researchers from across the country to identify the molecule, osteopontin-c (OPNc), as more accurate than existing biological signposts used to predict which breast cancers will develop into advanced forms of the disease. In a two-year evaluation of 178 breast tumors (normal and abnormal tissue samples) the team found that osteopontin-c was present in more than 75 percent of cancers and in about 35 percent of the surrounding tissues. It was not detected at all in normal breast tissues.
Weber said at the time of the discovery: "If we know that this molecule is absent from a patient with breast cancer, it's more likely that we can treat her with conservative therapy rather than breast surgery plus hormone therapy or chemotherapy because we know the cancer is less likely to metastasize. On the other hand, if we know that a patient has this molecule early in her diagnosis, we can treat the cancer more aggressively because we know it is likely to become invasive."
Early on in his research, Weber realized that if OPNc is only present in cancers, there would be an opportunity to target this molecule in diagnosis and treatment. Subsequently, he applied to and enrolled in Cincinnati Creates Companies—a UC collaborative that teaches researchers and inventors about the business of running a business—and in 2007, with the help of the business incubator, BioStart, he registered his company MetaMol to develop and commercialize diagnostic applications and anti-cancer drugs with a focus on metastasis.
MetaMol, he says, is currently on the brink of marketing a test that would detect OPNc in biopsied tissue to determine the aggressiveness of the cancer, and, in turn, the aggressiveness of the treatment. But it doesn’t stop there, he says. The second phase of development is a simple blood test to detect the presence of OPNc, allowing for a diagnosis of a hidden cancer before finding a lump or feeling ill.
Coming full circle, Weber says, would be a treatment using antibodies that neutralize OPNc to combat the spread of existing cancers.
"UC was integrally involved in getting the company started,” he says, and receiving the Emerging Entrepreneur Award is a validation of the support he’s received from the academic and business community.