Harvard professor launches research institute focused on ‘extracellular’ proteins

Harvard's Timothy Springer created the Institute for Protein Innovation to spur research into new antibody-based treatments.

Timothy Springer, Ph.D., a professor at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, has always been interested in developing antibodies targeting proteins that are “extracellular”—meaning they reside in bodily fluids, outside of cell walls. But he found that the amount of funding provided to academicians who are studying such proteins was lacking. So he decided to create his own funding mechanism, the Institute for Protein Innovation (IPI), which launched in Boston today.

IPI is supported by a $5 million grant from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center and a $10 million gift from Springer, a longtime biotech investor best known for founding LeukoSite, which was sold to Millennium in 1999 in a $635 million stock swap. IPI’s main goal is to develop monoclonal antibodies targeting every extracellular protein and share them with the scientific community, in the hopes that they will lead to new therapeutics for a range of diseases, Springer said in an interview with FierceBiotechResearch.

Springer said IPI is designed to take advances in monoclonal antibody technology and combine them with insights gained from the mapping of the human genome. “Our institute is the next logical progression of the genome project,” Springer said. “There are all these molecules on cell surfaces and outside cells, and many of them can’t be identified with traditional antibodies. We want to collaborate with investigators who have an idea for a new molecule, but who don’t have the [antibody] technology that would allow them to do that. We will partner with them to make the antibodies.”

IPI has already started building a library of antibodies, Springer said. The institute is working on antibodies that target the “beta adrenergic receptors,” which govern a number of essential bodily processes including heart function. There are already drugs directed toward those receptors, including isoproterenol, which is used to treat a slow heart rate. But it and similar products act broadly on all of the receptors, which limits their utility, he said. “The drugs that are out there don’t discriminate between the receptors, so one of our first projects is to make antibodies that are specific.”

IPI will be housed at Harvard Medical School for its first year, during which time the institute expects to create 10 full-time jobs for researchers.  The staff will double by 2022, as the institute adds experts in glycoprotein expression, directed evolution, protein characterization and more. IPI was co-founded by Andrew Kruse, an assistant professor of biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology at Harvard Medical School.

Springer said IPI will take an agnostic approach to partnering by forming research alliances with academics, patient-advocacy groups, and pharma and biotech companies alike. “It’s a really unusual academic-industrial partnership,” Springer said. “We’re creating an industrial organization in a nonprofit environment. I think the potential for what we can do is huge.”