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William & Mary scientists receive Commonwealth Research Commercialization Funds

  • A better cancer detector:
    A better cancer detector:  Biologist Oliver Kerscher (right) leads a team that includes master’s student Leanna Rinehart that is investigating a protein called U-TAG that holds promise for a more reliable test for prostate cancer.  Photo by Joseph McClain
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A recent announcement from Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe included notice that two William & Mary scientists received matching funds to help bring their discoveries into the market.

Oliver Kerscher, associate professor of biology, was awarded $91,962 for his project, SUMO Biomarker Detection Reagents for Prostate Cancer Diagnosis. Standish Allen Jr., director of the VIMS Aquaculture Genetics and Breeding Technology Center, was awarded $68,796 for his project, NIRS-Based Quantification of Chronic Oyster Disease for Advanced Breeding Objectives.

Kerscher said that the funding will allow him to advance his research to a proof-of-concept stage. He has been collaborating with Jonathan McMurry, a biochemist at Kennesaw State University, on a more reliable alternative to prostate-specific antigen, or PSA, screening for early prostate cancer.

“The good thing about PSA is that it’s easy,” Kerscher said. “It’s a blood test. The bad thing is that PSA tests produce a whole lot of false positives.”

Kerscher expects that detection of a SUMO-centric biomarker is likely to be more reliable. He explained that the distribution of SUMO in cancer cells is often abnormal. Kerscher and his lab have been studying a protein called U-TAG, which binds to SUMO as well as SUMO-modified proteins. U-TAG, he believes, can pinpoint cancerous cells by pointing out where SUMO has been at work.

Kerscher’s early work has been with yeast, which genetically is surprisingly similar to humans. He said the funding will allow him and his collaborators to move on to study the U-TAG in mammalian models.

The awards were among 48 projects receiving $3.4 million in Commonwealth Research Commercialization Fund (CRCF) funding.

“This latest round of awards continues the Center for Innovative Technology’s mission of commercializing lucrative research opportunities by leveraging public and private resources from across Virginia,” McAuliffe said in a June 10 press release.

“Cybersecurity, data analytics, unmanned systems technology and scientific research and development are on the cutting edge of American ingenuity, and our businesses and institutions in Virginia are leaders in these industries. We will continue to support emerging sectors that are pushing the boundaries of exciting research and development to help build the new Virginia economy.”

The Center for Innovative Technology (CIT) McAuliffe referred to is a nonprofit corporation dedicated to fostering entrepreneurship, market development and technology transfer in Virginia.

 Karen Jackson, the Commonwealth’s secretary of technology, said the Commonwealth Research Commercialization Fund awards represent the culmination of a competitive process.

“The Virginia technology community submitted nearly 150 proposals during this solicitation, an increase of more than 66 percent over the previous round in 2015,” Jackson said. “The awards made in this round will continue to produce the exciting outcomes already demonstrated by the portfolio, including intellectual property created and licensed, job and company creation and follow-on investment.”