Industry-Sponsored Research Week

Princeton partners with Genentech to decode a key process in vaccines and cancer treatments


By David Schwartz
Published: August 11th, 2020

A new partnership between the Princeton Catalysis Initiative and Genentech will support research into the little-understood process called endosomal escape, which is critical to many vaccines and cancer therapies.  

The research project, under the direction of Robert Prud’homme, professor of chemical and biological engineering, hopes to provide new insights on drug delivery and the efficacy of vaccines.

Prud’homme explained the endosomal escape process: An immune cell has a membrane at its surface, and when a particle lands on that membrane, the cell seeks to draw it in. An endosome — a sphere about 200 nanometers in diameter — forms to enfold and engulf the particle, after which the cell digests it. This process is already widely employed by scientists for vaccines and drug delivery.

However, scientists want to develop drug particles that escape the embrace of the endosome, and no one knows exactly how that works, he Prud’homme adds. To find out, he will collaborate with chemistry professor Haw Yang, whose 3D imaging work has “the world’s best capability to follow in three dimensions the trajectory of a little fluorescent particle” as it gets subsumed by the endosome, Prud’homme says. Combining their work, the researchers hope to detail the entire endosomal trafficking process.

“This research applies to a wide spectrum of Genentech therapeutics,” Prud’homme noted. “All the vaccines or the treatments for immunotherapies for cancer — all of those require internalization into the cell, but then endosomal escape. There is a great deal to learn about how that happens, so this is very fundamental information they’d like to have.”

Through its corporate partnerships, the Princeton Catalysis Initiative has seen a great deal of biotech industry engagement, working with teams from Bristol-Myers Squibb, Celgene, Janssen and Merck in what has become a rapidly expanding innovation ecosystem. Optimistically projected at its soft launch in 2018 to reach 150 collaborations, PCI has instead grown into a powerhouse now on track to enable more than 500 projects across 11 departments at Princeton.

Using what it calls flash-presentations at annual PCI symposia, industry gets an early look at research it can connect with and use to drive new product development. The Genentech partnership grew out of January 2020 symposia.

All told Genentech will fund five new collaborations, and their funding brings the total committed through PCI to over $65M in just over two years. PCI Director David MacMillan, who is also a chemistry professor who will work on the Genentech project, said he is “over the moon delighted” about the partnership.

“Genentech is really a special company in so many different ways, and has always valued basic research. They have a tremendous group of chemists, biologists and engineers, so for Princeton to be associated with them is incredibly valuable,” MacMillan said. “In addition, we’re on the other side of the continent from them. It speaks volumes that they felt what we were doing here is exciting enough to come across the country and partner with PCI.”

Along with the endosomal escape research, Genentech projects include novel formulations for drug delivery, earth-abundant metals for catalysis in pharmaceutical manufacturing, photo redox catalysis that can image molecules, and research into the complex interactions within microbial communities that could reveal new ways to turn “bugs into drugs.”

“Genentech is committed to delivering breakthrough therapies that improve and enhance the lives of patients. With this goal in mind, PCI provides access to cutting-edge technologies that we believe can accelerate new drug discovery programs in our portfolio,” said Wendy Young, Genentech’s senior vice president for small molecule drug discovery.

“Additionally, Genentech’s research organization has a close connection to Princeton and PCI,” Young added. “We have hired numerous accomplished scientists that were trained at Princeton, and so we know firsthand Princeton’s reputation and track record for innovation. It’s a terrific opportunity and a special collaboration for us.”

Source: Princeton University

Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week

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