Big News Coming From The Spira Lab

BU Johnson & Johnson Innovation Team Up to Fight Lung Cancer.

Avrum Spira, a School of Medicine professor of medicine, pathology, and bioinformatics, and a pioneering researcher in the genomics and early detection of lung cancer, will direct the new Johnson & Johnson Innovation Lung Cancer Center at Boston University. Photo by Cydney Scott

In what Boston University President Robert A. Brown envisions as a model for industry and academia collaborating to improve human health, BU has launched a five-year translational research alliance with Johnson & Johnson Innovation LLC (JJI) aimed at preventing, intercepting, and curing lung cancer, the leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide.

As part of the new alliance, Johnson & Johnson Innovation will fund a Johnson & Johnson Innovation Lung Cancer Center at Boston University on the Medical Campus, where BU researchers will work closely with members of the Lung Cancer Initiative within Johnson & Johnson to develop biomarker-based early-screening tests for lung cancer, as well as therapeutics to arrest or eradicate the disease in its earliest stages. The goal is to combine the resources of healthcare giant J&J with expertise at Boston University to speed the development of interventions and cures.

Avrum Spira (ENG’02), a School of Medicine professor of medicine, pathology, and bioinformatics, and a pioneering researcher in the genomics and early detection of lung cancer, will direct the new center. Spira, who for several years has been consulting on lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) research with Janssen Research & Development, the pharmaceuticals arm of Johnson & Johnson, has joined JJI as global head of the Lung Cancer Initiative within J&J, which will be based at the new center at BU.

“Building solutions that prevent and intercept disease requires very close collaboration between academic researchers and industry,” says Spira. “We need better and more rapid alignment of discovery with clinical application and development experience to bring forward important new diagnostic and therapeutic approaches.” The new alliance between BU and JJI, he says, “will help identify novel technologies and approaches that support this new vision.”

The alliance between BU and JJI—and additional research funding from JJI—seeks to build upon collaborative programs related to two extensive lung cancer research studies. These projects involve teams of cancer researchers from multiple universities and medical institutions across the United States and Europe, with BU as the lead site and Spira as the lead investigator.

The first project, Detection of Early Cancer Among Military Personnel (DECAMP), involves a translational research consortium that was established by the US Department of Defense seven years ago and is now co-funded by the National Cancer Institute and Janssen. The consortium of four military hospitals, seven VA hospitals, and several academic medical centers is building a cohort of more than 1,000 military personnel, veterans, and civilians at high risk for lung cancer, and discovering how different types of biomarkers can improve lung cancer screening and early detection.

In the second project, which originated four years ago with funding from Janssen, Spira and his collaborators are developing a precancer genome atlas (PCGA) to characterize the earliest cellular and molecular changes in the airway and lung that lead to invasive lung cancer, in order to identify which precancerous lesions are at highest risk of progressing to lung cancer and uncover novel therapeutic approaches that will block the development of these abnormal tissues into lung cancer. The PCGA project received additional funding when Spira was named to lead the nonprofit Stand Up To Cancer multidisciplinary lung cancer interception dream team last year. Along with his research record, Spira brings to the new alliance his extensive network of scientific collaborators across the United States and abroad, and his leadership skills.

The alliance also envisions that pilot programs developed by teams from across Boston University will be selected and advanced with close collaboration from Johnson & Johnson Innovation.

Because it is extremely difficult to diagnose before it has metastasized, lung cancer is the leading cancer killer of men and women in the United States; more people die from lung cancer than from colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined. Worldwide, the number of lung cancer deaths is growing in China and other countries, and among women. Lung cancer’s five-year survival rate is only 17.8 percent, much lower than that of other common cancers and only marginally improved over the past four decades (in 1977, the five-year survival rate was 13 percent).

“The important thing for the world is attacking a disease like lung cancer, which would make a big difference in global health,” says David Center (MED’72), Gordon and Ruth Snider Professor of Pulmonary Medicine and director of BU’s Clinical & Translational Research Institute. “The important thing for BU is to have a partnership with a company that is able to drive forward our ideas and technology without a lot of middlemen. It’s an extraordinary opportunity.”

“I am confident that the alliance between J&J and BU will produce life-saving, life-changing breakthroughs and will become a model for how a research university can collaborate with a great corporate partner.” —BU President Robert A. Brown

Center also says that J&J’s partnership with BU could prompt “other pharmaceutical companies to fund partnerships like this with select institutions that have the academic and scientific expertise to help them with diseases they’re interested in.”

There is widespread consensus among US health and academic leaders, policymakers, and scientists that it is taking too long to translate biomedical academic research breakthroughs into treatments and other therapeutics that can help people and improve health. To accelerate the pace, experts agree, industry and academia must find more ways to collaborate.

“We are very pleased to have the opportunity, working with a great partner, to develop new therapies and screening methods and to reduce the time between invention and bedside application,” Brown says. “I am confident that the alliance between J&J and BU will produce life-saving, life-changing breakthroughs and will become a model for how a research university can collaborate with a great corporate partner.”

Gloria Waters, vice president and associate provost for research at BU, says Johnson & Johnson’s cross-sector Lung Cancer Initiative is unique because it brings together consumer, medical device, and pharmaceutical groups to work on one disease.

“The initiative’s goals are very ambitious,” says Waters. “There are potentially many faculty at BU who can contribute to the endeavor. Our hope is that this alliance will allow us to broaden our collaboration with J&J to include not only faculty from the Medical School but also researchers from our basic science departments and our College of Engineering through an open call for proposals for pilot projects which will be funded by J&J.”

Karen Antman, dean of the School of Medicine and provost of the Medical Campus, says one of MED’s major goals is to increase collaboration with industry. “This new relationship will forge research collaborations with J&J and open other avenues for research investments,” she says.

“The benefits to us of engaging with companies like J&J is that they are expert in delivering new discoveries to the marketplace and ultimately to patients,” says David Coleman, Wade Professor of Medicine and MED department of medicine chair. “This new alliance has great potential to leverage the expertise of BU faculty and J&J scientists to accelerate the process from discovery to use in patients.”

The new Lung Cancer Initiative within J&J is “dedicated to transforming the standard of care for this devastating disease,” says William Hait, J&J global head of global external innovation, which is focused on prevention, interception, and cures for disease. “We are excited to be collaborating with Boston University in this important mission and bringing the research and development expertise of our consumer, medical device, and pharmaceutical groups together to address this critical need for patients around the world.”

Hait says JJI anticipates other joint projects with BU going forward. “We like to source innovation where it originates,” says Hait. “With BU, Karen Antman at the Medical School has built a wonderful research organization and President Brown has done a tremendous job of building BU into a research institution.”

“Avi Spira has a very substantial and sustained track record of innovation…and of leading the field in developing new approaches to early diagnosis of cancer. He now has the ability to guide the research agenda of a multibillion-dollar company that has decided to invest in lung cancer interception on a global scale.” —David Coleman, MED department of medicine chair

“The new alliance,” says Coleman, “has great potential to serve both the interests of BU and J&J because of Avi Spira’s extraordinary talents and scientific creativity. He has a very substantial and sustained track record of innovation, of delivering on the promise of his group’s work, of being a generative colleague and mentor, and of leading the field in developing new approaches to early diagnosis of cancer. He now has the ability to guide the research agenda of a multibillion-dollar company that has decided to invest in lung cancer interception on a global scale. Avi will have access to resources, talent, and people at a scale beyond what he currently has in academia. We look forward to working with him and J&J to make a profound impact on lung cancer.”

In his new role, Spira has stepped down as director of the Boston University–Boston Medical Center Cancer Center. He has also divested his financial interests from two companies he helped start, AllegroDx (acquired by Veracyte Inc.) and Metera Pharmaceuticals. A pulmonary physician-scientist who earned an MS in bioinformatics at the College of Engineering, Spira will retain his academic appointments—he is also Alexander Graham Bell Professor of Health Care Entrepreneurship—and will continue to serve as principal investigator on several grants within his lab and direct the section of computational biomedicine and to care for patients in the Medical Intensive Care Unit at Boston Medical Center.

JJI plans to renovate space on the Medical Campus—close to Spira’s lab—for the new center, which will include a team of J&J scientists and businesspeople. The alliance is intended to bypass a discouraging pattern familiar to Spira and other academic researchers: the maze of scientific, clinical testing, regulatory, and other obstacles that academic scientists must navigate to bring their basic science and discoveries to commercialization. This pattern is encountered so often that the researchers have a name for it: the valley of death.

Without preexisting industry ties, it took Spira and colleague Jerome Brody, a MED professor of medicine emeritus, nearly 10 years to get their discovery—a genomic biomarker for a relatively noninvasive early-detection test for lung cancer—to patients. Struggling to raise venture capital funding, in 2007 they started their own small company, AllegroDx. AllegroDx was eventually acquired by a larger company, Veracyte, which made the diagnostic test Percepta available to the first patients in 2015 and received a Medicare coverage decision in 2017.

“That’s the one scientific discovery from my lab that’s made it all the way into patients and is impacting care,” says Spira. “I want to do that again. I want to do it bigger and better. I want to move faster. It’s extremely hard to do this in academia alone. We have so many discoveries that could help people who are suffering. We have to work with industry. It’s the only way it’s going to happen.”

“Avi is an extraordinary person—a once-in-a-lifetime person who comes along with all the skills J&J wants, and BU wants,” Center says, and through the alliance he should “be able to make a greater impact than he’s already made. Avi will succeed no matter what.”

BU’s new alliance with JJI, and its focus on intercepting lung cancer, comes at a time when cancer researchers and physicians are expressing renewed optimism over recent breakthroughs and new technologies that are enabling new targeted treatments, such as immunotherapy, for a number of cancers.

“The technologies and scientific insights are evolving so rapidly that there’s a huge opportunity to bring them to bear on disease and make a difference—and cancer is way ahead of other diseases,” says Spira.

Spira’s work as a pulmonary physician—managing lung cancer patients who usually don’t get diagnosed until after their disease has metastasized—is part of what drives him in his research and in his new role with JJI. “The unmet need in lung cancer is great,” he says. “It’s the number-one killer by far—more than the next three cancers combined. It’s a horrible disease because it’s almost always diagnosed too late. We don’t want to be focused on late-stage disease, where research is mostly focused today. We want to move earlier in the disease process.

We want to prevent disease from happening in the first place and among those patients who are already incubating disease, intercept the predisease process to block the development of full-blown advanced disease. That’s the primary focus of the new center, of my lab, of J&J.”


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