Q&A With Annual Celebration 2024 Awardees: Louise Hecker, PhD

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Louise Hecker, PhD, is the EmpowHER Award recipient at Emory OTT’s 2024 Annual Celebration of Technology and Innovation. Hecker is a prominent researcher in the field of regenerative biology and specializes in pulmonology. Her research primarily focuses on understanding the molecular mechanisms underlying lung fibrosis and developing novel therapeutic approaches for treating this debilitating disease.

Can you introduce yourself?

I’m Louise and I am an Associate Professor of Medicine in the Pulmonary Division. We do a wide range of projects, under a big umbrella. We study aging and injury repair. We’re not trying to necessarily find the fountain of youth but rather help people live longer and healthier. An otherwise healthy person might be afflicted by age-related diseases. These are the kinds of diseases where the pathological mechanisms get older, like lung disease and heart failure. We’re trying to essentially mediate that process so people can live healthier and longer.

What initially drew you to your field?

My background and all my training since I started research — maybe 20-something years ago — has been really focused on regenerative biology. Then, in my postdoc, I really started studying the injury repair process. And so, the sort of logical extension of that is how that process goes awry in aging. My background sort of lends itself to that area because understanding regeneration and repair helps me better understand why we have failed repair and aging.

Can you tell us a little bit more about the technology you received the award for?

Most of them really have to do with novel therapies to combat age-related diseases. For example, we have patented the use of this novel FDA-approved drug that targets Nrf2 (NFE2-related factor 2). Nrf2 is used in multiple sclerosis when given orally, and we found in our research that Nrf2 happens to be really important in lung fibrosis.

Photo of Louise Hecker

Louise Hecker, PhD

Some of the other patents are on these NOX4 inhibitors switch, and that’s a kind of long-standing area that I’ve been studying for well over a decade. I started with the identification of them. I was the first, back in my postdoc, to identify the role of NOS, an oxygen-generating enzyme. Its only known role is to generate oxidants, something needed for normal cellular processes. What we found is that it’s a critical mediator of scar tissue or lung fibrosis.

I initially was the first person to uncover this novel target. Over the years, I realized that NOX4 is important in essentially every organ that scars. We’ve got to find a drug that blocks NOX4 because again, in aging, NOX4 turns on like it’s supposed to when you have neural scar tissue. But in age-related disease, it turns on and the switch that turns it back off seems to be broken. That lends itself to a good therapeutic target.

Some of the technology that I’ve developed this year, like optimizing these second generation NOX4 inhibitors and even NOX4 inhibitors that can bring the inhibitor to the low threefold increased concentrations. We’re not only discovering new NOx inhibitors that work but also finding and developing new technology that can help take it to the disease area and get it there in a more concentrated way.

What are some next steps for this technology?

There’s some very exciting stuff going on for us right now because we just got awarded a Phase I STTR grant and a Phase II SBIR grant.

Phase I is focused on the Nrf2 activators. It’s already an FDA-approved drug, but it’s a new route of administration and for a new disease. So now, the goal of that project is to figure out how to get it closer to clinical trials.

Phase 2 is focused on the next round of development for the NOX4 inhibitors. We have a lump sum of our lead candidates. This phase of the award will further derisking these candidates, identifying the number one lead development candidate, and a backup candidate in case something goes wrong during the next phase.

We’re getting closer to the next steps, like GLP Toxicology and IND-Enabling studies, which is one more step to getting closer to patients.

What did you enjoy about winning the award? What does it mean to you and your lab?

To me, it’s the best, most amazing award that I can win. As you can imagine, I spend a lot of time working on these commercialization strategies. Sometimes it’s directly in line with my academic roles, but sometimes it’s not. Sometimes, your academic side takes a hit so you can pursue these commercialization projects.

For example, having done the NOX4 inhibitors for 10 years, and that being something that I’ve been funded to do and am passionate about, it takes up a lot of my time. But I’ve never published a paper on them yet, because it’s just not the right time in the commercial development process to put it into the world. So, I’ve taken a hit on publication, and that hurts. You’re sometimes seen as not as productive as other people by this random metric.

To be recognized for the commercialization and aspects of my work is really important to me because I spend so much time doing it. It means so much to me and it’s what my passion is. I’m getting goosebumps talking about it because this is a huge part of my life. To get recognized for it is really special. It’s very motivating and humbling.

It means a lot to me and to my team. This award goes to my team, as well.

If you were to summarize all of your emotions in just one word, what would that word be?

Wow. Maybe wow? Excited is another one. The award comes at a good time where the technologies have firmed up and all these things seem to be like kind of converging. There’s a real big sense of like of things are all moving in the right direction right now.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I think a big part of this, too, is the close collaboration with the tech transfer office. I appreciate their help so much.

That’s the other part of this. It’s not only just the team of people doing the work with me, but the team of people over in the tech transfer office who are actually making these inventions into patentable, commercialize-able technologies. That’s a huge support for me.

Strong engagement and close relationships with the tech transfer office is what makes all of this possible. It is such an important thing that I think needs to be highlighted and recognized.

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

— Angela Chan