Wistar secures $4.7M to develop Epstein-Barr-related cancer drug

The Wistar Institute will receive up to $4.7 million from the UK-based Wellcome Trust charity for the development of a new drug to fight cancers associated with the Epstein-Barr virus, according to an announcement from the biomedical research institute.

The Seeding Drug Discovery Award of up to $4.7 million is to aid the translational research being carried out by Paul M. Lieberman, a professor at Wistar.

To qualify for seeding drug discovery money, the project “must address an unmet need in healthcare or in applied medical research, offer a potential new solution and have a realistic expectation that the innovation will be developed further by the market,” according to the Wellcome Trust’s website.

The new therapeutic could be the first to treat cancers related to Epstein-Barr by attacking the virus as it remains dormant in a patient’s cells.


The funding for the three-year, multistage effort will be based on meeting research milestones outlined by Lieberman and Troy Messick, a staff scientist and co-leader on the project.

Epstein-Barr virus is estimated to cause nearly 400,000 cases of cancer each year, including Burkitt’s lymphoma, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, gastric carcinoma and certain oral and throat cancers.

Lieberman leads the Center for Chemical Biology and Translational Medicine at Wistar, a partnership between Wistar and University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.

Last year, research showed that the Epstein-Barr virus can be fought successfully with a cancer drug.

One key is targeting the protein ENBA1 that lies at the heart of the virus. “EBNA1 is expressed consistently in all EBV-related cancer and is essential for the virus to reproduce,” said Lieberman. “Knocking out EBNA1, therefore, could likely eliminate latent Epstein-Barr virus and control the growth of EBV-associated cancer.”

A recent report by the Association of University Technology Managers rated Wistar among the top 10 technology transfer programs for licensing income at hospitals and research institutions in the country.

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