Inaugural Munck-Pfefferkorn Grants Bring Research Closer to the Marketplace and Helping Patients

In 1987, three Dartmouth Medical School scientists co-founded a successful biotech company, Medarex, based on their discoveries in the lab. Medarex went on to produce two of today’s leading antibody-based cancer therapies. Now, profits from that endeavor are supporting the annual Munck-Pfefferkorn Awards, which fund new biomedical research projects at the Geisel School of Medicine that have high potential to benefit patients and to generate future revenue through grants or entrepreneurial endeavors.

Distribution from the Munck-Pfefferkorn endowment allowed Geisel to invest almost $1.2 million into eight different programs. The inaugural award recipients are focusing on a variety of areas, including priming the immune system to fight cancer, understanding which factors promote difficult-to-treat infections in the lungs, and revealing targets for the diagnosis and treatment of a rare autoimmune disease. (For a full list of award recipients, see below.)

“The Munck-Pfefferkorn endowment fund was born in a spirit of supporting investigators to try new and innovative lines of investigation,” said Duane Compton, PhD, Interim Dean of Geisel. “I’m excited to see the variety of scientific projects that this endowment can help launch. It’s an invaluable tool for the school and its faculty.”

The endowment is named in honor of two luminaries from Dartmouth’s medical school: Elmer Pfefferkorn, PhD, Emeritus Professor of Microbiology and Immunology, and Allan Munck, PhD, Emeritus Professor of Physiology and Neurobiology.

“The impact that Elmer and Allan had on Dartmouth, on science, and on all of us cannot be overstated,” said Michael Fanger, PhD, Emeritus Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at Geisel and a co-founder of Medarex. “To see that impact extend to the next generations of researchers, clinicians, and patients is consistent with their legacies and all of our shared goals.”

Another Medarex co-founder Paul Guyre, PhD, Professor of Physiology and Neurobiology and of Microbiology and Immunology at Geisel, agrees and added, "It is tremendously gratifying that these grants can accelerate some of our colleagues' most creative ideas toward positive effects on both people's lives and Dartmouth's future.”


Inaugural Munck-Pfefferkorn Award Recipients


Testing a New Nanoparticle Immunotherapy Treatment in Canine Melanoma Tumors 

Jack Hoopes, DVM, PhD, Professor of Surgery and Medicine (Radiation Oncology) and Adjunct Professor of Engineering at the Thayer School of Engineering, Dartmouth College
Steven N. Fiering, PhD, Professor of Microbiology and Immunology and Genetics

Researchers will test a new strategy for treating human melanoma, a particularly deadly cancer, using spontaneous oral melanoma tumors in pet dogs. Because the canine tumors are so biologically similar to human melanomas, the data from the study will likely predict how effective the treatment will be in humans, too. The strategy involves the injection of iron oxide nanoparticles into the tumors, radiation therapy, and one of two vaccines that have been proven to stimulate immune systems to fight tumors. In previous studies, Dr. Hoopes and Dr. Fiering advanced the nanotechnology component of the therapy and effectively treated canine oral tumors. With the addition of immunotherapy, this new strategy has the potential be much more effective in dogs and, eventually, humans.


In Pursuit of New Treatments for CF, COPD, and Other Respiratory Infections

Dean Madden, PhD, Professor of Biochemistry
Deborah Hogan, PhD, Associate Professor of Microbiology and Immunology
George O’Toole, PhD, Professor of Microbiology and Immunology
Bruce Stanton, PhD, Andrew C. Vail Professor of Microbiology and Immunology

In cystic fibrosis (CF), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and other respiratory diseases, infections often become resistant to antibiotics, leading to inflammation, tissue damage, and, eventually, death. Thus, there is a pressing need for new therapeutic strategies. Four interrelated projects funded by this Munck-Pfefferkorn grant will focus on a network of extracellular factors that are believed to promote difficult-to-treat airway infections and chronic inflammation. The Munck-Pfefferkorn support will enable the group to fill critical gaps in the understanding of this network and, hopefully, identify new targets for treating chronic respiratory diseases.


Seeking Simple Blood Tests to Predict Lung Cancer Risk

Jennifer Doherty, PhD, Associate Professor of Epidemiology and of Community and Family Medicine
Carmen Marsit, PhD, Associate Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology and of Epidemiology

Lung cancer is the most deadly cancer in the United States. Although low-dose CT screening (i.e. CAT scan) has been proven to save lives, the method also results in many false positives—people being told they may have lung cancer when they do not. This project will examine specific age- and inflammation-related characteristics of DNA circulating in people’s blood. The hope is that such characteristics—or biomarkers—could predict which people deemed as high risk for lung cancer should have a CT scan and who can skip it. This personalized medicine approach will reduce unnecessary testing, invasive procedures, and stress for those potentially at risk.


Enhancing the Immune System to Fight Tumors

Edward Usherwood, PhD, Professor of Microbiology and Immunology
Mary Jo Turk, PhD, Professor of Microbiology and Immunology
Charles Sentman, PhD, Professor of Microbiology and Immunology

Enhancing the body’s own immune system, specifically T cells, to fight tumors is “coming of age,” note Drs. Usherwood, Turk, and Sentman. However, while early clinical trials are promising, sustaining the activity of these designer T cells—called CAR T and CD8 T—within the body over time remains elusive. In this project, researchers will work to identify key genes that can drive the designer T cells to persist long term in patients and enhance the cells' ability to fight tumors and to recruit other immune cells to do the same.


Refining a Powerful Immunotherapy Strategy

Charles Sentman, PhD, Professor of Microbiology and Immunology
Yina Huang, PhD, Assistant Professor of Pathology and of Microbiology and Immunology
Margie Ackerman, PhD, Assistant Professor of Engineering at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering

Several years ago, Dr. Sentman found a way to create and attach a hybrid receptor—or chimeric antigen receptor (CAR)—to immune cells, thereby enhancing their ability to kill tumor cells and to recruit other immune cells to do the same. Furthermore, Sentman’s CARs target many types of cancer, unlike most CARs in development. This project aims to address key design questions related to CAR T cell therapy for cancer and to improve the delivery of CAR T cells to specific tissue locations within the body—critical steps in attracting industry investment and bringing the immunotherapy closer to widespread use.


Testing an Inexpensive, Portable Cervical Cancer Screening Tool

Gregory Tsongalis, PhD, Professor of Pathology
Jennifer Doherty, PhD, Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Community and Family Medicine
Kathleen Lyons, ScD, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry
Linda Kennedy, MEd, Associate Director of Community Affairs for Dartmouth’s Norris Cotton Cancer Center

Cervical cancer is still a major killer of women in low- and middle-income countries, in part because pap tests require specialized personnel and recent vaccines are expensive and impractical for those settings. This project will test the real-world efficacy of a rapid, inexpensive, portable test developed by Dr. Tsongalis that can detect the 14 types of human papilloma virus (HPV) known to cause cervical cancer. The team will trial the test in 400 women in Honduras, comparing the results to a much more expensive method that is known to be accurate. If successful, the test could transform cervical cancer screening—and survival—in countries worldwide.


Probing a Painful, Debilitating, and Sometimes Deadly Autoimmune Disease

Michael Whitfield, PhD, Professor of Genetics
Brock Christensen, PhD, Professor of Epidemiology, of Pharmacology and Toxicology, and of Community and Family Medicine
Patricia Pioli, PhD, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, of Microbiology and Immunology, and of Physiology and Neurobiology
Monique Hinchcliff, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine (Rheumatology) at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Scleroderma is a family of rare autoimmune diseases that affect the skin and, in some cases, internal organs. The most severe kind, systemic sclerosis (SSc), has an unknown cause and is the most deadly systemic autoimmune disease. Dr. Whitfield and his collaborators are using novel and emerging bioinformatic and statistical methods to create molecularly derived categories of SSc, which vary in disease severity, internal organ involvement, and responses to treatment. Through this award, the team will investigate the drivers of this disease, positioning them to develop new diagnostic and prognostic tests, and to begin to define new treatments.


Leveraging Current Research for Colorectal Cancer Insight

Elizabeth Barry, PhD, Assistant Professor of Epidemiology and of Community and Family Medicine
Chris Amos, PhD, Professor and Chari of Biomedical Data Science
John Baron, MD, Active Emeritus Professor of Medicine; Professor of Epidemiology and Community and Family Medicine
Douglas Robertson, MD, MPH, Associate Professor of Medicine and of The Dartmouth Institute
Arief Suriawinata, MD, Professor of Pathology

Dartmouth maintains the clinical trial database and repository of blood and DNA specimens for a large, multi-center study about the possible role of vitamin D and calcium in preventing colon cancer. This award will enable the collection and central storage of cancerous and pre-cancerous tissues collected at the many study sites. Geisel researchers will conduct a pilot study using the specimens to 1) confirm their quality and utility for future studies and 2) test important hypotheses about the development of colorectal cancer.