Attracting expertise: A win for Carolina, a win for research

Owen Fenton (seated) surrounded by six members of his team in the Fenton Lab

Before joining the faculty at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, Owen Fenton studied under one of the world’s leading mRNA delivery researchers: Robert Langer, cofounder of Moderna. Getting Fenton from Massachusetts to Chapel HIll was a big win for the University. Fenton sees coming to Carolina as a win for his research interests, as well.

“I view the future of medicine as being very interdisciplinary, which was one of the biggest attractions in coming to UNC, where we benefit from being able to partner with amazing faculty and collaborate through groups like the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center,” Fenton shared.

The University’s more than 50 core facilities — which offer the latest technologies and expert staff — were also a draw.

“This idea of discovery enablement is so important to next-generation therapy development, which is what our team focuses on here at UNC. If you’re part of a group working to develop new types of medicine, there is no better place to be than within the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy.”

Another important tool in recruiting Fenton to the school was Dean Angela Kashuba’s ability to access flexible, unrestricted funds from an endowment to help cover startup costs for the Fenton Lab. The endowment is supported by philanthropic contributions, including a $2 million gift from UNC pharmacy alum Donna Gutterman ’79, ’98 (MBA).

“Due to the generosity of our donors, we have the ability to quickly access funds and capitalize on big opportunities, like supporting Owen,” said Kashuba. “It’s humbling to see our alums and partners eager to help us in this way. I’m so grateful to be able to invest their gifts in enriching our community and creating opportunities for significant impact.”

“That flexible support was critical to rapidly build up our team,” said Fenton. “To me, the most important foundation for success is a team-based environment that promotes creativity.”

Owen Fenton and a member of his team conduct research in the Fenton Lab

The Fenton Lab works broadly within the field of genetic medicine and its applications in treating diseases of the brain. Fenton’s research focuses on the delivery of mRNA therapeutics, which leverage the body’s own genetic code as medicine to treat neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s, as well as cancers including glioblastomas.

“Treating these diseases is complex and requires an interdisciplinary approach that brings together experts from diverse backgrounds,” Fenton said. “Because of the critical support we received from Dean Kashuba and the University, we have already been able to bring together experts from key backgrounds. Working with this diverse team of exceptional researchers has really helped accelerate our work.”

Since beginning his tenure track, Fenton has received more than $1.2 million in grants, including a grant from the National Institutes of Health for a project focused on developing new medicines that are safer and more effective than current therapies for treating skin cancer.

“Having these awards is rapidly enabling us to develop next-generation mRNA therapies and technologies,” said Fenton. We are very excited to perform this research here at Carolina and look forward to advancing our research from the bench top to the clinic.”

Hear more about Fenton’s work with mRNA therapies in this UnSCRIPTed interview produced by the Eshelman School of Pharmacy.

Photos by Jeyhoun Allebaugh

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