E. Gifford and Love Barnett Upjohn Professor of Medicine and Oncology Research Professor, Life Sciences Institute

Steven J. Weiss, MD

The traditional approach to finding new medicines for cancer has been to select a candidate molecule based on what is known about the genetics and biology of the disease. This preferred candidate approach is time-consuming and expensive. Dr. Weiss devised a new method by shrewdly combining several scientific tactics to confront the formidable opponent of cancer. Using in vivo systems, Weiss purposefully, but indiscriminately generates hundreds of antibodies to human cancer cells. Then, using a modified high-throughput approach, Weiss observes which antibodies block the growth of cancer cells in three-dimensional models that replicate the in vivo environment and mimic how cancer operates in the human body. The antibodies that stop cancer growth are then investigated with advanced techniques to identify the target on the cancer cell surface.

While the discovery of a new drug can typically take decades, in less than two years, this new strategy resulted in the identification of several promising monoclonal antibodies that block the ability of breast cancer cells and brain tumors to grow and invade tissues. Weiss is also finding promising results in the areas of pancreatic and ovarian cancer. Since monoclonal antibodies are already used with great success in the clinical realm, the identification of these new agents could lead to the rapid development of new anti-cancer drugs.

Weiss’s project was supported with funds and expert business advice through the Life Sciences Institute’s Innovation Partnership. The program—created and funded by U-M donors—selects promising research and readies it for outside investment and partnerships.