Dr. Daniel Saltzman says he can prove that bacteria that ordinarily cause food poisoning in people can be modified for use as guided missiles to deliver cancer-killing payloads into tumors.
But he needs $500,000 for some preliminary work, and despite his project’s potential, he’s not holding his breath for funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the nation’s leading source of biomedical research grants.
So Saltzman has teamed up with an entrepreneur in the television industry and Twin Cities advertising and public relations professionals to make an unusual direct appeal to the public. In the process, he’s helping to bring so-called crowdsourcing to the field of medical research.
“This is very different … and so there has to be a leap of faith’’ for the research to be funded, said Saltzman, surgeon-in-chief at Amplatz Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis and an associate professor at the University of Minnesota.
To convince people of his work’s promise, Saltzman and his partner have built a website branding his research “Project Stealth,” created an eye-catching plush toy to represent the salmonella bacterium, made a video featuring Saltzman and a golden retriever named Buddy, and turned to private fundraising events and crowdfunding avenues like Razoo.com.
Saltzman, who has raised about $32,000 since launching Project Stealth in mid-October, acknowledges that the approach is unusual. But he says that, with federal research funds getting tighter every year, he had little choice.
“The bottom line is, there’s a lot of competition, a lot of labs, and only so much money.”
Saltzman is not the first scientist who turned to public appeals for funding in an era of tight federal research budgets. Over the past decade, inflation has eroded more than 20 percent of the buying power of NIH grants for scientists studying genomics, neurology, cancer, heart disease and countless other health issues. With so many competing projects, NIH has reduced the percentage of requests it has funded.
Such novel fundraising methods raise concerns because they don’t go through the conventional peer-review process, said Arthur Caplan, a medical ethicist at New York University’s Langone Medical Center. And when they rely on celebrities, as some do, they can draw money for reasons other than scientific merit, he said.
But after reviewing Saltzman’s video at the request of the Star Tribune, Caplan said: “One can always niggle at these things, but it seems fine — [a] strong plea for money but from a very legit research program,” he said in an e-mail. Caplan’s only concern was why the project hadn’t drawn NIH or foundation funding given its promising results in animals.
$250,000 a year
Saltzman has been studying the use of bacteria as a potential way to fight cancer since 1993 and thinks he’s on the verge of a breakthrough. He says he needs about $250,000 a year for two years to develop the data required to convince the Food and Drug Administration to authorize human testing. If approved, he said, the U has committed to pay for the $800,000 it would take to run the “phase 1” trial in humans.
Although the U provides researchers with expensive tools like electron microscopes and a fertile environment for the exchange of ideas, Saltzman said, “They give you a room and they turn on the lights. They charge rent for the room. But every lab and every … principal investigator is basically charged with raising their own funds to do research.”
The idea of crowdfunding Saltzmans’ work came from Max Duckler, a semiretired entrepreneur who in 1993 founded CaptionMax, a closed-captioning service for television. Duckler has a degree in biology and a lifelong fascination with medicine. He attended a fundraiser where he bid to spend a day with a surgeon. He won, shadowed Saltzman on six surgeries, and learned about the cancer research.
Duckler said he was disturbed to find that Saltzman and his lab workers were worried whether they could afford to spend $600 to buy special research mice.
“Six hundred dollars and you have to ask whether you can afford it? This is not good,” Duckler said.
A medical advertising firm called StoneArch and a public relations firm named PineappleRM donated their services to publicize Saltzman’s work, and the Twin Cities office of BusinessWire distributed the news release at no charge.
In the marketing video, Saltzman describes how the engineered salmonella penetrate a tumor and activate the body’s immune system to destroy it. “We have tested this therapy in over 4,000 mice. In addition, in small pilot studies in humans and dogs with cancer, we have not seen any side effects at all. Can you imagine a cancer treatment without side effects, whatsoever?”
Jeff Miller, deputy director of the U’s Masonic Cancer Center, said Saltzman’s pitch in the video goes a little far for some researchers, who prefer to seek the U’s institutional funds for basic research.
“Lots of people have good ideas here,” Miller said. “I don’t think what Dan is doing is being looked down upon. I think the issue is that we just want people to be honest and realistic about their claims when they’re tied to the institution.”
Project Stealth donations go directly to the University of Minnesota Foundation and are subject to its controls and management, said Sarah Youngerman, a spokeswoman. She said Saltzman hasn’t misrepresented himself. “This guy is changing people’s lives — kids’ lives,” she said.
Crowdsourcing, which other U researchers have used occasionally, “isn’t where you’re going to raise big, big dollars,” Youngerman said, but it can help with public awareness. “A lot of people feel like they can make a difference in a very small way. And certainly they can, as you aggregate those $10 gifts or those $50 gifts.”
Defeating force fields
Saltzman says he has applied for 11 grants. One was rejected, one was awarded for $30,000, and he’s awaiting responses on the rest. This isn’t his first effort to prove the salmonella concept. He got a $375,000 grant from the National Cancer Institute a few years ago and has won support from several smaller funds. All told, he said, he has spent $125,000 to $250,000 a year on the project in the last 13 years.
Saltzman, who is both an M.D. and a Ph.D., said he got interested in using salmonella to fight cancer in 1993. He was working in a lab with Interleuken 2 (IL2), which boosts the immune system but is extremely toxic. He and his mentor attended a meeting on vaccines one day and learned about salmonella, which lodges in the liver and reproduces. They wondered whether it could be used to deliver IL2 to fight liver cancer.
A famous microbiologist named Roy Curtiss, now at Arizona State University, gave them permission to use a nontoxic strain of salmonella he’d developed. A cocktail combining salmonella and IL2 reduced liver cancer tumors in mice by 60 percent. Then Saltzman’s group and a group at Yale University learned that salmonella also has a strong affinity for cancerous tumors throughout the body, and the race was on to use it to kill them. A company founded by the Yale team went bankrupt. Saltzman said his research showed good results in dogs but failed to produce “a survival advantage” in humans.
Then about three years ago, new research showed that cancer cells produce a force field around themselves that prevent attack by chemotherapy or the immune system. Saltzman re-engineered the modified salmonella so that it would carry a number of immune-boosting proteins. Initial tests indicate that it defeats a tumor’s force field.
“We’re building on our previous research,” Saltzman said. “But our preliminary data looks like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”
Even so, he cautions potential contributors that his research is just that, and could ultimately fail in humans.
Saltzman noted that his medical practice pays his salary; he earns no money from his lab.
“The administrative costs are zero, so every dollar goes into research,” he said. “It’s just a labor of love. It’s a passion.”