St. Olaf Magazine | Spring/Summer 2021

Branden Moriarity ’07 is developing new cellular therapeutics for treating cancer and genetic diseases.

Branden Moriarity, photographed in Shoreview, Minnesota, by Tom Roster

As director of the University of Minnesota’s Moriarity Lab, Branden Moriarity’s cutting-edge work in developing and translating to the clinical setting novel cellular therapeutics for gene therapy and cancer immunotherapy has garnered widespread attention.

“Almost all of the new therapies we’re developing are based on engineering cells,” Moriarity says. “For gene therapy, we change the genetic code of cells to cure genetic diseases. For cancer immunotherapy, we change the genetic code of immune cells to train them to hunt down and kill cancer. We’re also heavily involved in taking the therapies from ‘bench to bedside,’ as the therapies developed in the lab are translated into clinical trials for testing in patients.”

In addition to running the lab, Moriarity is an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics/Division of Pediatric Hematology and Oncology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He holds academic appointments in three of the university’s graduate programs: Microbiology, Immunology, and Cancer Biology; Molecular, Cellular, Developmental Biology, and Genetics; and the Comparative and Molecular Biosciences. These are in addition to appointments in the university’s Stem Cell Institute, the Center for Genome Engineering, and the Masonic Cancer Center, where he co-directs the Genome Engineering Shared Resource.

“I’ve been interested in cancer research since I started in the sciences,” Moriarity says. “Everyone knows someone — or is someone — who has had cancer, so that’s what drives me. Also, there’s a huge need for good treatments for advanced cancer.”

The Moriarity Lab currently employs four postdoctoral fellows, eleven Ph.D. candidates, and numerous research technicians and undergraduate assistants. In 2014, researchers at the lab discovered semaphorin 4D (SEMA4D), a gene that may cause osteosarcoma, a malignant bone tumor found in children and adolescents. Moriarity and his team partnered with the biotechnology company Vaccinex, which had developed an experimental antibody that could block SEMA4D’s activity and activate a productive immune response to fight off the cancer. Together they are conducting clinical trials at 22 institutions across the country.

“We’re just wrapping up trials of a single drug therapy that we tested for safety,” Moriarity says. The therapy was found to be safe and well tolerated, paving the way for a multi-drug, follow-up trial to test efficacy. “It’s exciting work, because antibody treatments don’t have the toxic side effects of traditional chemotherapy.”

The Moriarity Lab conducts between 12 and 15 projects at a time, largely focused on creating new cellular-based therapeutics for cancer and genetic diseases. One current project, a trial involving patients with highly metastatic gastrointestinal cancer, is particularly inspiring, Moriarity says. “It’s the first time that we’re developing something that might cure people who would otherwise perish,” he says. “It’s pretty incredible to be developing a therapy for people who have no other treatment options.” The trial has already treated two patients and will be expanding to treat an additional 20 patients this year.

Advancements in genome editing tools have also enabled the lab to work toward treatments that have the potential to cure certain genetic diseases, such as sickle cell disease, fanconi anemia, and severe combined immunodeficiency. “Current treatments use donor cells for bone marrow transplant, with a high risk of morbidity/mortality, but we are now correcting the patient’s own stem cells and using them for the bone marrow transplant, making the treatment more effective and safer,” he says.

I’ve been interested in cancer research since I started in the sciences. Everyone knows someone — or is someone — who has had cancer, so that’s what drives me. Also, there’s a huge need for good treatments for advanced cancer.

Moriarity originally intended to be a German major at St. Olaf, but he fell in love with science after taking his first college-level science course as part of the TRIO Student Support Services (SSS) program the summer before his first year on the Hill.

“I received SSS support during my entire time at St. Olaf. The impact that program had on me was huge, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without it,” Moriarity says. “I was the first person in my family to go to college, so I didn’t have any mentors in that respect. SSS took me under its wing and taught me how to be a college student.”

After graduating cum laude from St. Olaf with a B.A. in biology and chemistry and a concentration in biomolecular sciences, Moriarity went on to earn a Ph.D. in genetics and molecular, cellular, and developmental biology from the University of Minnesota Medical School in 2012. He was a post-doctoral fellow at the university from 2012 to 2014. In 2014, he established the Moriarity Lab.

Moriarity notes that the well-rounded education he received at St. Olaf resonates in his work today, and he credits the college for giving him his start in scientific research. He began as a research assistant in Professor of Chemistry Doug Beussman’s lab, and then was selected as an HHMI International Research Scholar. He spent the summer after his junior year in the Czech Republic, studying the way certain chemotherapy agents interacted with DNA and publishing a paper on his findings. He also participated in St. Olaf’s Biology in South India study abroad program.

“I was taught graduate-level science at St. Olaf, especially in my upper-level courses,” Moriarity says. “I was surprised during my first year in graduate school to be rehashing what I’d already learned. That allowed me to focus more on my research, and to propel it faster and further.”

St. Olaf also taught Moriarity how to prioritize projects and “juggle many balls at the same time” through effective time management skills, and the writing skills he developed in humanities courses like philosophy and religion continue to come in handy. “St. Olaf substantially improved my writing,” he says. “As any principal investigator knows, a big part of the job is writing grants, and so I use those skills every day in my work.”

Moriarity continues to stay engaged with St. Olaf. He has served on numerous SSS alumni panels and has hosted SSS students on visits to his lab at the University of Minnesota. He and his wife, forensic scientist Erin Hoffman Moriarity ’06, were the keynote speakers for the Piper Center’s Ole STEM event in 2019.

In addition to his demanding research and teaching schedule, Moriarity is flexing his entrepreneurial skills. He has started three genome engineering and cancer immunotherapy biotech companies out of the University of Minnesota, including Catamaran Bio, a Boston-based startup that manufactures genetic therapies to treat cancer based on research conducted at the university’s medical school. Catamaran Bio recently raised $42 million in venture capital, a record amount for any company rooted in the university’s scientific research.

Moriarity was also the chief scientific officer of B-MoGen Biotechnologies, which was acquired by Twin-Cities–based Bio-Techne Corporation in 2019. He currently is a founder and chief innovation officer of Luminary Therapeutics, which is focused on nonviral autologous CAR-T cell therapies.

“These companies allow us to place critical focus on designing and engineering new therapies, and then getting them to the clinic safely,” Moriarity says. “They’re providing hope.”

One might argue that Moriarity himself is doing the same.