Over the course of his career, Randy Noelle has made many contributions to the growing understanding of how the immune system functions. But at the same time, he has taken on an aspect of biomedical research that can be hard for scientists to master: turning basic discoveries into treatments for a disease.
Manipulating the immune system has shown great potential for the development of new drugs. “So many of the chronic diseases that we face as we age are immune-related,” says Noelle, a Geisel School of Medicine professor of microbiology and immunology. “In the last decade, revolutionary new drugs have appeared. The drugs that have really made a difference, both in cancer and in autoimmunity, are drugs that target particular components of the immune system.”
Recently, Noelle and researchers in his lab discovered a protein, called VISTA, that he thinks offers a good target for a new cancer treatment. VISTA is one of a number of checkpoint regulators, which prevent the immune system from overreacting to a threat. “If we didn’t have these negative checkpoint regulators, the next time you got the flu, you would have massive inflammatory responses systemically that would kill you,” Noelle says.
But when facing cancer, these checkpoint regulators can shut down the immune system’s response, preventing it from mounting a full defense. By targeting VISTA, Noelle hopes to unleash the immune system to attack tumors. Doing so would create long-lived immunity, just as childhood vaccines offer long-term protection against diseases such as measles and mumps.
Noelle co-founded a company to turn his discovery of VISTA into a viable treatment. It’s a long and expensive process. So the company he started, ImmuNext, has partnered with Johnson & Johnson, which provides resources to support the work as ImmuNext tries to turn the discovery into a deliverable drug. “We’re very excited about the prospects,” Noelle says. “Over the next few years, we will have produced a human therapeutic that will target VISTA, and we hope that it will be a therapeutic that will allow your immune system to make protective immune responses to any number of cancers.”
He adds that he owes much of his success to the research environment at Dartmouth. “The success rate is not a great one in the industry, but we’ve been lucky,” he says. “I think the reputation of my lab [and] the reputation of Dartmouth have helped create credibility.”
David DeLucia, the CEO of ImmuNext, agrees with Noelle. “What makes Dartmouth a good place to develop technology . . . is that you have this close proximity, this integration of cutting-edge scientific research with clinical practice,” DeLucia says. “The quality of the pieces and the proximity of the pieces is a very rare and productive situation.”
Noelle says it’s that combination that has kept him at Dartmouth. “I can’t think of another academic medical center in this kind of setting that has such a competitive and comprehensive infrastructure,” he says. “I’m here because of that—because of the infrastructure, because of the colleagues that I have, and because of the living environment.”