Kenneth Adler, professor of cell biology in the Department of Molecular Biomedical Sciences at North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, has spent more than four decades investigating the respiratory airways and the problem of excess inflammation as occurs in several severe diseases, including chronic bronchitis, asthma, cystic fibrosis, and acute respiratory distress syndrome.
In the process, Dr. Adler has become one of the world’s foremost researchers in the field of airway disease and a top-ranked biomedical scientist whose achievements have the potential to significantly improve the lives of people with severe respiratory disease.
Adler’s career has been recognized by numerous honors, the most recent being the 2014 Dr. John S. Risley Entrepreneur of the Year award sponsored by the NC State Office of Technology Transfer and presented to the cell biologist by NC State Chancellor Randy Woodson and Vice Chancellor for Research Terri Lomax.
In the mid-1990s, Adler became interested in a protein known as MARCKS (Myristoylated Alanine-Rich C Kinase Substrate) as a potential regulatory molecule in the process of mucus secretion within goblet cells in the airways. To learn more about the MARCKS protein, the Adler lab conducted experiments using a novel cell culture technique with human airway epithelial cells. Not only did the researchers find the protein played a pivotal role in controlling mucous secretion, they discovered one of their test reagents blocks the protein and stops secretions, as well as attenuates inflammation.
At that time there were no known ways to inhibit the function of MARCKS in cells so the Adler lab developed a peptide, which Adler named the MANS peptide, that appeared capable of inhibiting the MARCKS function in cells. With support from the Office of Technology Transfer (OTT), the cell biologist initiated procedures to patent the MANS peptide and launch a company to market the discovery that could result in improved drugs for respiratory ailments like asthma and chronic bronchitis.
OTT staff linked Adler with Allen “Fred” Gant, a NC State graduate who has pharmaceutical company experience, and Raleigh businessman Tom Roberg. The trio created start-up biotech company BioMarck Pharmaceuticals Ltd. BioMarck raised more than $20 million dollars in investments as well as more than $5 million dollars in National Institutes of Health grants.
BioMarck performed the toxicology, carcinogenesis, and other studies necessary for the Food and Drug Administration to approve work in human patients, and a clinical trial in patients with chronic bronchitis has been completed with promising results. Treatments for other lung diseases, including acute respiratory distress syndrome and even lung cancer metastasis, are being developed, and there are nine patents granted or pending related to this work.
Among his numerous other honors, Adler is the 2005 recipient of the O. Max Gardner Award, the highest award presented by the University of North Carolina Board of Governors to a faculty member for having “made the greatest contribution to the welfare of the human race.” In 2004, he received the Alexander Quarles Holladay Medal for Excellence–the highest award made by NC State in recognition of faculty career accomplishments.
Adler, who is a member of the NC State Center for Comparative Medicine and Translational Research, also is a recipient of a prestigious MERIT Award from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. The MERIT (Method to Extend Research in Time) Award supports researchers “who have demonstrated superior competence and outstanding productivity in research endeavors” by providing 10 years of grant support worth approximately $400,000 a year. Less than one percent of NIH-funded investigators are selected to receive MERIT awards.
The Dr. John S. Risley Entrepreneur of the Year award honors John Risley, a longtime physics professor who, in the course of his NC State career, became interested in physics education research. His research eventually led him to found WebAssign, an online homework and assessment tool, and a spin-off company was born. In 2003, WebAssign moved to Centennial Campus.