Zhiqiang An focuses on academic drug discovery, both in his own research and as director of the Texas Therapeutics Institute (TTI) at UTHealth Houston.
After a 15-year career in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, mostly at Merck, he joined McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston as TTI’s founding director. Established in 2009, the institute has attracted $50 million in funding, published more than 150 articles in top-tier journals, and filed 45 patents with 15 issued. TTI has also licensed 10 drug candidates, with five in clinical trials. Such contributions currently lead all academic U.S. labs.
Dr. An was a pioneer researching antibodies for drug modality some 25 years ago. Today, half of the top 50 drugs use antibodies to combat diseases ranging from cancer and COVID-19 to Alzheimer’s and autoimmune diseases.
He and his collaborators have advanced five first-in-class drug candidates into human clinical trials for diseases including acute myeloid leukemia, breast cancer bone metastasis, solid tumor, spinal cord injury and COVID-19. Five additional antibody drug candidates are in preclinical development, including PRTH-101 which blocks T-cell exclusion in the tumor microenvironment.
“I am so excited by our team and our contributions to human health,” Dr. An said. “We anticipate that the next two years will see at least another 10 antibody drug candidates targeting different diseases enter preclinical development.”
One focus of Dr. An’s lab is cancer, where his team has made progress developing targeted treatments that engineer antibody proteins to latch onto tumor cells and disrupt their growth. Another project is tackling Alzheimer’s. Recent work found that a tetra-variable domain antibody targeting the triggering receptor expressed on myeloid 2 (TREM2) – dubbed TREM2 TVD-lg – reduced amyloid burden, eased neuron damage and alleviated cognitive decline in mouse models of Alzheimer’s disease.
“Antibody-based therapy is a viable drug modality for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease,” Dr. An explained. “One of the major areas of focus at the Texas Therapeutics Institute is developing technologies to deliver antibody-based therapies across the blood-brain barrier for potential treatment of the disease.”
Dr. An credits The Welch Foundation as an important contributor to his lab and the institute’s success.
“Coming from industry, it has been so rewarding to work in academic research where our investigations into nature’s molecular mysteries points us in directions that can make a difference for society and improve health outcomes,” Dr. An said. “Welch support provides a critical underpinning for our lab and our ability to move into new areas quickly.”