Leading Cancer Scientist & Entrepreneur on Research in NY

Lewis C. Cantley, Ph.D.
Meyer Director of the Sandra and Edward Meyer Cancer Center at Weill Cornell Medical College/Ronald P. Stanton Clinical Cancer Program at NewYork-Presbyterian, Professor of Cancer Biology in Medicine

When were you recruited to New York State?

I was recruited to Weill Cornell Medicine from Harvard in 2012 and have created a lab that now employs 27 people, some of whom I brought with me from Harvard, and many of whom I hired from New York City.

What is your area of research, and what is the potential impact of the research?

My work is in cancer research, much of which stems from my discovery in the mid 1980s of the signaling pathway phosphoinositide 3-kinase (PI3K). This research has resulted in new insight and new therapies for treating cancers and diabetes. Now, at Weill Cornell Medicine I am continuing my career-long effort to find effective treatments for cancer.

Have you had any discoveries that have been spun off into start-up companies?

While at Harvard in 2008, I co-founded Agios Pharmaceuticals in order to commercialize discoveries from my lab and bring new therapies to market. Agios launched with $34 million in funding and had 25 employees within the first year or so. It is now valued at over $2 billion and employs more than 200 people. The company now has four drugs that are currently in clinical trials for cancers and for inborn errors of metabolism.

This January I launched Petra Pharma Corp, which received $48 million in financing to develop small molecule inhibitors for the treatment of cancer and metabolic diseases. I am optimistic that Petra Pharma will follow a similar trajectory to Agios. We currently have a management team in place and plan to employ an additional 20 people by the end of the year.

What is the process by which a discovery goes from proof of concept to marketable drug or therapy?

Once a company such as Petra or Agios has discovered an new mechanism for treating a disease, that mechanism must be tested through clinical trials. Clinical trials take place in three stages, with the final being large-scale, multi-site testing. Clinical trials are an essential component of the process of bringing drugs to market.

What are your thoughts on the current research environment in New York?

I relocated to New York because the leadership of Weill Cornell has a clear vision of fostering translational research and providing the essential support for commercializing the therapies that arise from that research.

But I’ve noticed that the venture capital community is reluctant to invest in New York, at least as compared to the tech corridor in Boston. Investors have not yet realized that New York is an incredible environment for basic research and for clinical trials – there are more patients and fewer clinical trials than in Boston. This improved ratio makes enrollment for clinical trials much easier. And although there has historically been a lack of dedicated research space outside academia, that is changing; for example the development of the Alexandria Center – where Petra Pharma will be based – is beginning to turn New York into a competitive destination for bioscience.