In 1999, Distinguished Professor of Medicinal Chemistry and Pharmacology, Vincent Njar, made a decision that might have seemed purely normal for an avid researcher. He had recently been made professor of Organic Chemistry at the University of Ibadan (1996). However, following several research visits from 1996 to 1998, which saw him collaborating with the late internationally renowned breast and prostate cancer researcher, Dr Angela Brodie, he decided to join her fully at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM), in Baltimore, USA. Not only has that decision paved way for him to become one of the most successful medicinal chemists and oncopharmacologists but it has also positioned him to give the world a potential definitive cure for cancer.
Brodie was a British biochemist, who had pioneered development of steroidal aromatase inhibitors in breast cancer research. Njar’s partnership with her in developing the inhibitors bolstered his interest in the rational discovery and development of small molecules as anti-cancer agents. Consequently, over the years, he has made outstanding discoveries in the development of novel small molecules with potential for the treatments of a variety of cancers, especially breast, prostate and pancreatic cancers. He invented novel reactions that led to the synthesis novel inhibitors of all-trans retinoic acid (ATRA) metabolism enzyme (CYP26). These inhibitors are also referred to as retinoic acid metabolism blocking agents (RAMBAs). Some of his compounds are by far the most potent RAMBAs known.
Hopes well founded
Indeed, there are very strong reasons for the widespread belief that finding a cure for cancer lies in Njar’s works. As earlier noted, his most significant discoveries include retinoic acid metabolism blocking agents (RAMBAs), or novel retinamides (NRs), that inhibit the growth of breast and prostate cancer cells and tumours. The NRs he discovered cause degradation of mitogen-activated protein (MAP) kinase-interacting kinases (Mnk1 and 2), which can promote tumour progression.
Njar also has worked on the design, discovery, and clinical translation of Galeterone, a novel CYP17 inhibitor/androgen receptor degrading agent for the treatment of cancer. Galeterone was licensed by Tokai Pharmaceuticals, Inc. and advanced to Phase 3 clinical trials showing dramatic activity in men with hormone refractory metastatic prostate cancer. Because of its clinical efficacy, Galeterone and subsequent variants continue to be developed as novel therapeutics for prostate and pancreatic cancers.
Njar said of his on-going research effort: “I am relentlessly pursuing the development of Galeterone technology toward commercial success and medical impact. For example, two clinical trials were initiated just this year, based on recent preclinical studies from my lab. Specifically, we demonstrated that Galeterone impedes pancreatic cancer cell migration, invasion, and proliferation and inhibits tumour growth in mice.”
Consummate academic and entrepreneur
Another engagement that Njar finds gratifying is passing on the knowledge and experience he has garnered over the years to other potential world-changers. According to him, “Through collaboration with Dr Brodie, I was able to acquire astute knowledge of cancer biology and oncopharmacology. This enabled me to train 11 PhDs in molecular medicine/life sciences, many postdoctoral fellows, and research associates who have all proceeded to reputable positions in academia, industry, and government.”
Aside from being professor of Medicinal Chemistry and Pharmacology, Njar also heads the Medicinal Chemistry Section of the Centre for Biomolecular Therapeutics (CBT) at UMSOM. He has published over 120 articles, reviews and book chapters and is the lead inventor on over 50 issued patents and pending patent applications. He actively participates in several drug discovery and development grant review committees nationally and internationally. His research is currently supported by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI)
But perhaps what gives Njar the greatest joy is being an entrepreneurial scientist, who is actively making a difference in people’s lives with his researches and inventions. During a recent presentation, he explained why he chose to combine entrepreneurship with his academic acumen. He said, “In drug development, I could be called academic, but some drug discovery efforts are anything but academic. Academic’s synonym is pedantic. Academic means it doesn’t matter…I want to do things that matter. I certainly don’t want to be associated with the term pedantic…When somebody is called an academic, it should mean that it does matter.”
To back up his words with actions, Njar has taken his research discoveries a step further by founding two companies over the years that have helped him to direct the early development of his inventions and technologies. He first founded Terpene Pharmaceuticals, LLC. Thereafter, in 2018, he co-founded Isoprene Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (IPI), an early-stage small molecule oncology company developing oral therapeutics for triple negative breast cancer and other cancers. IPI was recently awarded a two-year, approximately $2 million Small Business Innovation Research grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) for a translational project to develop a novel therapeutic for triple negative breast cancer.
As the company’s chief executive officer, Njar is focused on oncology applications of the NRs developed in his laboratory. He reveals what has made him a successful entrepreneur so far: “Being an entrepreneur means to undertake a high-risk, high-reward venture and be fearless in the process. Over the years, I have realised that entrepreneurship means doing, doing, doing until something useful or impactful gets made. I believe in what I am doing, and I am not afraid to ask for help. Being a successful entrepreneur requires thorough planning, creativity, and hard work.”
Career path and recognitions
Prof. Njah obtained B. Sc. in Chemistry at University of Ibadan in 1976 and went on to obtain a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry in 1980 from University College London/University of London (UK). Following two years of postdoctoral research at Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology, Shrewsbury, Mass. (USA), he joined the Department of Chemistry at the University of Ibadan (Nigeria) as Lecturer II. He was promoted through the ranks and became professor of Organic Chemistry in 1996.
During his tenure at University of Ibadan, he was visiting Professor at several institutions, including: Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, USA (1988, 1989, 1992 and 1993); Universite de Sherbrooke, Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada (1990); University of Southampton, Southampton, UK (1991, 1992 and 1995); and University of Saarland, Saarbruecken, Germany (1994-1995). He joined the University of Maryland School of Medicine in 1999.
Njar has been severally honoured for his extraordinary contributions to cancer research, which have enhanced cancer patients’ care and survival. Early this year, he was made a distinguished professor, which represents the highest appointment bestowed on a faculty member at University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB), recognising excellence as well as impact and significant contribution to the nominee’s field.
His latest honour was being named,UMBs 2021 David J. Ramsay Entrepreneur of the Year – for his novel discoveries on possible cures for cancer. While introducing him for the award presentation, Albert Reece, executive vice president for medical affairs, UMB, and dean, UMSOM, said of Njah: “Dr Njah is an entrepreneur par excellence. First and foremost, he is an outstanding scientist. He has more than $2½ million of extramural research funding active at the present time. For his profound and creative research, and his collaborative and congenial style of finding solutions, Dr. Njar is what I would describe as the epitome of what a biomedical entrepreneur should be.”
Njar himself described the award as “very encouraging and has energised me to keep plugging on. I am optimistically cautious that my entrepreneurship will eventually produce at least one U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved anti-cancer drug for the benefit of mankind.”