Rochester Innovators Series: Shruthi Naik
Dr. Shruthi Naik is a scientist, entrepreneur and problem-solver, whose work on oncolytic virotherapies represents some of the most cutting-edge cancer research in the world.
In addition to being a research associate at Mayo Clinic, Shruthi is a co-founder of Vyriad, a biotech company based here in Rochester. In collaboration with a team of experienced researchers, including her professional mentor, Dr. Stephen Russell, Shruthi is working to develop cancer therapies that use engineered viruses to destroy tumor cells while simultaneously boosting the immune response against the cancer. In doing so, the body can continue targeting and killing cancer cells while preserving the healthy cells — allowing for a course of care that is more efficient, less painful and potentially more affordable than existing treatment options.
Though the therapies may be years away from widespread use in clinical settings, early results from one engineered virus in particular, the vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV), appear promising. The virus, known to infect cattle in central America, grows rapidly in tumor cells but not in healthy normal cells — making it a potent force in the fight against cancer.
“When it works, it’s basically activating the body’s immune system against the cancer — to the extent that people have gone into complete remission,” says Shruthi. “What we hope is that we can form an immunotherapy here that would work in a wider spectrum of patients. The ability of the virus to actually infect, replicate and kill cancer cells, and stimulate a much more robust immune response in that area gives it an edge over current cancer immunotherapies.”
Shruthi’s journey to Rochester is one that reflects a continuous commitment to scientific discovery and a keen sense of knowing when to embrace an opportunity. Born in India and raised in Malaysia, she moved to Texas for college before eventually winding up in Rochester to study at Mayo Graduate School. She had not intended to stick around in Rochester after graduate school; that was until she realized the potential of what she had been working on.
“When I finished up in graduate school, the research I had worked on ended up being extremely promising,” says Shruthi. “We engineered and tested a vesicular stomatitis virus for the treatment of multiple myeloma. And going through the entire process of working on a lab bench; to engineering the virus; to generating a virus and testing it in cell culture; to testing it in animals — and getting some really profound data — led us to think this would be a good candidate to develop as a human cancer therapy.”
From there, Shruthi began working with her colleagues to find a pathway toward commercial development of the therapy. It was at the time when Mayo Clinic Ventures had become proactive in helping researchers and physicians form companies and license technologies using its intellectual property. So just after receiving her graduate degree, Shruthi helped found Omnis Pharma, which later merged with another company, Magnis Therapeutics, to form what is now Vyriad. Now more than a decade later, Shruthi and her team continue to grow, most recently announcing plans to take on empty space on the IBM campus.
“We want to be the first to do it,” says Shruthi. “We want to be the first major biotech company in Rochester.”
We recently sat down with Shruthi in the Mayo Business Accelerator to learn more about her groundbreaking research, as well as her thoughts on innovation and entrepreneurship in Rochester. Minor edits were made for flow and clarity.
Now that we have some background on what you’re working on, tell us what comes next.
Well, now we’re at the stage of testing it in human clinical trials, which involves working with different hospitals all over the country and setting up clinical trials and using fairly complex systems by which to monitor patients — because it’s the first time we’re testing these drugs in humans. So we’re monitoring the patients, getting the samples to know what’s happening, and getting the data to say whether we can take the next step to getting it as an approved drug to actually treat patients on a larger scale.
Just how far have we come in cancer research? And what do you hope to achieve with the therapies you’re developing?
Cancer started off as a death sentence. Then the treatments that came subsequently were painful, with severe side effects. When they worked it was great, but they decreased the quality of life so much that it was almost torture to go through. They were also very expensive.
Right now in the United States, we’re actually very fortunate to have access to the treatments that we have. The standard of care in the U.S. is not even an option in many other places. So we want to make it accessible, not just to the privileged few, but outside also. We need to decrease the cost so people all over the world can afford it.
You have been working with Dr. Russell since you were a graduate student. What’s the number one thing you have learned from him?
He has been my mentor in a scientific and research setting for as long as I’ve been in Rochester. He is an extremely good critic, and I mean that in the best of ways. He will very clearly say ‘this is how you will get better.’ And I think, as a result, I have vastly improved both my ability to communicate complex scientific concepts and to critically think about the studies and experiments I’m doing — to make sure everything I do has a positive finding. Even if it’s not going to work, it still tells us something that will lead the next step.
Going back to your childhood, did you know then you wanted to be a scientist?
Since I learned how to read, it’s been a battle between mom and dad; dad getting the scientific encyclopedias and mom getting the novels and Lord of the Rings books. I was inundated with both worlds early on, and enjoyed both a lot. So that was the initial inspiration. And then seeing the impact of it firsthand through what my father does (head of a pharmaceutical company in Malaysia), in that he uses a very technical and rigorous process to manufacture these medicines that he subsequently would send all over the world. He would work with the World Health Organization to send meds to areas that didn’t have access … So there was this application side of it that was pretty profound and that drove me in that direction.
I have to say that I got lucky, too, in some of the teachers I had. To this day, I know my math and chemistry teachers were my favorite teachers. I remember the lessons still that they had taught. So I never felt deterred from science in the way I’ve heard others may have been as little girls.
As Vyriad continues to grow, why stay here in Rochester rather than relocate?
We have all been here a while. We feel like Rochester is ready for it. The criticism that we have heard when comparing Rochester to the east or west coasts, while there are definite deficiencies in comparison, there are many advantages to being located here that we want to show. We want to highlight that we have a really great community to live in; we barely have a commute; we have access to the best scientists and knowledge in the world. With the city growing, there are actually things to do downtown. In the decade I’ve lived here, the quality of life has improved immensely.
There was a time when downtown was dead after five. Then were was a period when people would be downtown after five, but all you would see were Mayo employees or UMR students. And now, I am noticing there are architects and programmers, and there are graphic designers and photographers and journalists. And suddenly you have people who are coming out and being present in the community, which I really enjoy.
On a final note, want to leave us with any advice you have for those pursuing a career in both science and entrepreneurship?
Make every connection you can and when you find good people, make sure you keep in touch with them. Having the right advisors and the right sounding boards, and the people you can really talk to, makes all the difference in the world … Because as good of a scientist as you may be, it’s a completely different beast to actually go into a world where you’re forming and growing a business.
Rochester Innovators is a nine-part series being published in partnership with Destination Medical Center.
Cover photo by William Forsman