A therapeutic to treat the most common childhood cancer

UIC is one of the only research institutions with three FDA-approved drugs on the market. As Co-Founder and COO of Enzyme by Design, Dr. Amanda Schalk is hoping to make it four. Spun out of the Lavie Lab at UIC, Enzyme by Design is developing a cancer therapeutic to treat the most common form of childhood leukemia.

Tell us how the research at Lavie Lab became a company, Enzyme by Design…

We initially began research on using protein engineering to develop a human asparaginase that could be used for anti-cancer treatment.  Professor Arnon Lavie had the breakthrough to characterize asparaginases from guinea pig, the serum of which provided Dr. Kidd the first observations of guinea pig asparaginase tumor cell-killing properties in 1953.  Once we elucidated the protein structure in 2014, the project really began to take off as we could use further utilize knowledge of the structure to inform the design of the therapeutic.

Simultaneous work by Dr. Hien Anh Nguyen led to mutations in the Erwinia asparaginase enzyme that greatly diminished its glutaminase activity and led to the stable, truncated version of our enzyme. We disclosed the technology to UIC’s office of technology management who have been extremely supportive, and they told us if we really wanted our technology leave the bench and make it to patients, we would have to commercialize it. 

What is your elevator pitch to investors? 

Enzyme by Design is a pre-clinical protein engineering startup spun out from the University of Illinois at Chicago that focuses on developing innovative cancer therapeutics. Our biologics’ unique mechanism of action takes advantage of the weakness of a tumor’s metabolism while sparing healthy cells. Our focus is currently on developing a safer asparaginase, a therapeutic which is currently a mainstay in the treatment of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), the most common childhood cancer. 

What has been your most rewarding moment?

Enzyme by Design has reached many milestones as a team on this journey toward drug development and commercialization in our mission to reach patients.  In just over a year, we’ve been awarded almost a million dollars in non-dilutive federal small business grants, which feels great in terms of adding value to the company, moving development forward, and validating the potential of our technology.