Connecticut BioInnovation Program Boosts Leukemia Drug Discovery Efforts by University of New Haven Chemists and Yale Scientists

Dequan XiaoUntil 1970, the survival rate for a child with leukemia was just 10 percent.  Today, 90 percent of children with leukemia will live at least five years. But for adults with leukemia, the outlook is much dimmer, with some leukemia subtypes having a five-year survival rate of less than 10 percent.

Can better drugs be discovered to transform leukemia treatment?

That’s the dream of Dequan Xiao, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of New Haven (UNH), and Jun Lu, an associate professor of genetics at Yale University. 

For the last two years, they have collaborated using a multi-disciplinary approach relying on both chemistry and biology to discover drugs that could eradicate leukemia one day.

Their work was recently given a boost. A proposal by a collaborative team, including Lu and Xiao as well as Stephanie Halene and Jijun Cheng at Yale, was selected by the Connecticut-sponsored Program in Innovative Therapeutics for Connecticut’s Health  (PITCH). They will work closely with scientists at the Yale Center for Molecular Discovery.

PITCH team

At left: The Yale-UNH research team working for leukemia drug discovery (from left): Jun Lu (Yale), Stephanie Halene (Yale), Jijun Cheng (Yale), Dequan Xiao (UNH), and Pier Cirillo (UNH).

Their work will be part of a three-year, $10 million investment supported by the Connecticut Bioscience Innovation Fund. The selection means that translational research will be pursued based on basic research with the end goal of developing a prototype drug and a commercial start-up to continue development of it.

“This is an exciting way for basic research to be translated to potential commercial products and then put on the market,” Xiao said. “We will work together with the PITCH program to discover pre-drugs that restore health to leukemia cells and to significantly enhance our success rate of discovery."

Lu noted “the research and its results will also have a positive influence on our study and help us to understand more about the fundamental biological processes of leukemias and other cancers of the blood.”

Xiao’s work is centered on analyzing the structure and the basic chemical processes of biological molecules such as proteins and DNAs related to leukemia diseases using computational chemistry methods and chemical synthesis. For the last two years, with the efforts of students and lecturer Pier Cirillo at UNH, his lab has designed and synthesized several organic compounds that have the potential to alter the function of the leukemia-related biological molecules.

The Lu lab has conducted a series of biological studies of these compounds in experiments.

Xiao, who completed his postdoc at Yale in theoretical and computational chemistry before joining UNH’s faculty in 2013, has a Ph.D. from Duke University.

The state’s PITCH program, led by Craig Crews of Yale University and Dennis Wright of the University of Connecticut, looks to structure and oversee the creation of new biopharma and biotechnology ventures based on research from the state’s higher education system.

A link to a release from PITCH about the program is at:

“The U.S. pharmaceutical industry is undergoing a major transformation driven by patent expiries, diminishing drug pipelines and the high cost of conducting internal research and development,” said Crews. “This is the optimal time to launch new biotech companies, and this program is designed to increase the speed in which it is done in our state.”

Signed into law on Sept. 4, 2013, by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, the $200 million, 10-year Connecticut Bioscience Innovation Fund was created to provide focused financial assistance to startups, early-stage businesses, nonprofits and accredited colleges and universities throughout the state.

The University of New Haven is a private, top-tier comprehensive institution recognized as a national leader in experiential education. Founded in 1920, the university enrolls approximately 1,800 graduate students and more than 4,600 undergraduates.