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Weill Cornell, Biotech Collaboration Brings Graduate Student Research into Focus

By Dave DeFusco


Big pharmaceutical companies may have their names on patients’ prescriptions, but they have become increasingly reliant on academic medical centers and small companies to create the drugs they sell. Collaborations, like the one between Weill Cornell Medicine and the Katz School’s M.S. in Biotechnology Management and Entrepreneurship, have emerged as catalysts for the development of the next generation of drugs, devices and services. 


At the 2024 Symposium on Science, Technology and Health, Yining Zhang explains his research on antifreeze proteins and peptides made by organisms that allow cells to survive in sub-zero conditions.

“The relationship is very symbiotic,” said Dr. Rana Khan, program director of the Katz School’s biotechnology program. “Students work in a consultative capacity with life science startups for the development of new therapies and medical devices. Most important, they can apply what they’ve learned in a dynamic and entrepreneurial environment.” 


Weill Cornell Medicine focuses its research on cancer, cardiovascular disease, metabolic disorders, neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, childhood illnesses and infectious diseases, especially those that have a significant impact on the developing world. 


In addition to Weill Cornell Medicine, several life science companies and academic programs—Albert Einstein College of Medicine, BIOGVIR, EpiStemyx, Frezent, Biological Solutions, Growmics and Lucerna—sponsored graduate student capstone research this spring. Each student worked on a project proposed by the client through the 15 weeks of the semester, ranging from an in-depth landscape analysis of mRNA synthesis services, to developing bi-specific antibodies for cancer treatment, to developing novel games for stroke rehabilitation patients. 


Shriya Jitendra Kalburge explains how she used a software called COMSOL Multiphysics to create simulations that show how the temperature changes on the surface of and inside biological samples will improve our understanding of freezing processes in food.

“Such experiences are the crux of a student’s professional and academic growth,” said Dr. Khan. “I’m grateful to these companies for providing mentoring and guidance to our students during a real-world, hands-on experience.” 


This spring, Katz School student Chaya Kestenbaum worked with representatives of Enterprise Innovation at Weill Cornell Medicine to research the feasibility of establishing a centralized hub dedicated to nurturing women’s health innovations. She conducted a market analysis of the existing support structures for FemTech innovations at universities, medical centers and private companies in New York City and throughout the United States. She also compiled information on the uniqueness and relevance of Weill Cornell Medicine’s proposed hub and the availability of venture capital for women’s health initiatives.  


“Chaya expanded our understanding of services that are available and the capabilities that already exist in the marketplace,” said Loren Busby, director of Weill Cornell Medicine’s BioVenture eLab, a part of Enterprise Innovation. “Katz students are very energetic and very inquisitive. I’m always so impressed by how detailed they are and the high quality of their work. Their entire program is very impressive.” 


Sapience Therapeutics has created a new peptide called JunAP that is important in cancer development and immune suppression. To develop JunAP for medical use, Christine Chery, above, performed an analysis that helped the company focus on using it for bladder and endometrial cancers. They also found that JunAP might be useful for cancers caused by HPV, which was an unexpected discovery.

Another Katz School student, Sharon Borenstein, is doing market research for a potential Weill Cornell Medicine spinout that is proposing to create a variety of treatments from stem cells.  She is focused on understanding how a combination of therapies can bolster the immune system in the treatment of cancer. Borenstein is researching what immuno-oncology therapies exist in the marketplace in anticipation of the company developing a new cancer drug.  


Graduates of the Katz School’s M.S. in Biotechnology Management and Entrepreneurship are “prepared to become leaders in innovation,” said Dr. Khan, as research and policy analysts, business development associates, clinical trial and regulatory specialists and project managers. The program teaches students how to commercialize biomedical products and services through specialized coursework and a multitude of hands-on experiences, including research projects like the ones with Weill Cornell Medicine through its capstone course. 


“We’re very thankful for this long-standing relationship with the Katz School,” said Busby. “Dr. Khan and I are looking for ways to expand the relationship.”