Q&A With Annual Celebration 2024 Awardees: Eric Ortlund, PhD

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Eric Ortlund, PhD, is the recipient for Emory OTT’s Deal of the Year Award at the 2024 Annual Celebration of Technology and Innovation. Ortlund and his research team used a structure-guided approach to exploit a newly discovered polar interaction to lock agonists in a consistent orientation. This enabled the discovery of the first low nanomolar LRH-1 agonist. In 2023, Emory University executed an exclusive high net worth license with Allonix Therapeutics for this technology.

Can you introduce yourself?

My name is Eric Ortlund. I’m a professor of biochemistry in the School of Medicine. I run a research lab here that uses tools like structural biology, biochemistry, and biophysics to understand how proteins function.

Photo of Eric Ortlund

Eric Ortlund, PhD

We’re really interested in how lipid metabolites and hormones bind to receptors to control the expression of genes. My lab focuses on nuclear hormone receptors – these are ligand regulated transcription factors – and I’m particularly interested in nuclear receptors that are termed “orphans,” so they don’t have a canonical ligand, yet play really important roles in biology and disease. We have a focus on developing drugs for a few of these “orphans.”

Can you tell us a little bit more about the technology that you’re receiving this award for?

The technology centers on a chemical matter, so this is a series of small molecule chemicals that activate or repress a nuclear hormone receptor called LRH-1 or liver receptor homologue one.

Can you tell us a little bit about where in the process of patenting and licensing this technology is and what some of the next steps are for the technology?

We’ve been issued a U.S. patent already that was granted, I think, last year. It covers our first series of molecules which includes hot very high affinity activators or full agonists, and so our best molecule is a Picomolar agonist. We have found that it’s very effective in treating symptoms of all sorts of colitis, so this is our first use indication. We have U.S. patents and we have an additional series of patents going in to cover the next molecules that are improvements upon our initial patent. These new patents will be covering molecules that will be anti-inflammatory and useful, we think, for ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, but also will cover molecules that we hope will be important in treating triple negative breast cancer and pancreatic cancer.

Could you tell us a little bit about what this award means for your lab?

It’s just really wonderful that some of the basic science we’re doing has generated potential new therapies. We’re excited to be recognized with this award from tech transfer. We’ve had a great experience working with OTT here at Emory. I’ve really been happy with Raj, who was my point of contact in the office and has helped answer all of my questions with regards to patenting strategies, when to publish, when to disclose. He’s been excellent. This has also permitted us and me to found a company, Allonix Therapeutics, which is taking this patented material for it and developing it, hopefully, into a drug.

Do you have one word to describe your feeling about winning this award?

Hope. I hope that this makes it. This award represents a technology that is really exciting and promising, but it’s still early days in that we haven’t gotten into humans, and so I really hope that we continue to make great progress with development of these molecules and can actually make it into the clinic.

Join us for Emory OTT’s 18th Annual Celebration of Technology and Innovation on Thursday, March 21! RSVP here.

— Chaya Tong