A Link in the fight against cancer

Bellaire native and St. John’s grad Dr. Charles Link started his company, NewLink Genetic, in 1999 with a fellow researcher from the National Cancer Institute. The company is based in Iowa. NewLink Genetic went public last November. The basis of NewLink Genetic is developing immunotherapeutic products to further the treatment of cancer.

“Typically with cancer we use chemotherapy. We have been working for the last 15 years on projects to use the immune system to fight cancer as opposed to chemotherapy. So we believe that the immune system could be more targeted, have less toxicity to patients and with time we plan to prove it can be less infectious then chemotherapy in treating a wide variety of cancers.”

“Part of human biology is we have the ability to defend ourselves against pathogens, viruses and bacteria. We have that ability without prior exposure to those agents. This is called innate immunity. Those innate pathways can detect components, viruses, bacteria or fungi or parasites … things that could attack you. We already have performed antibodies in our bloodstream that are already posed to attack.”

The carbohydrate in the virus that serves as a danger signal to the antibodies could be placed on the cancer cell and would then attack the cancer cell. The main point behind this, Link explained, was to trick the immune system into thinking the cancer cell is an infectious risk that needs to be attacked and destroyed.

This is something that he has been in clinics for the last eight years, collaborating with the National Cancer Institute. It has progressed to the point that they can conduct a trial that is in process in 70 clinics across the United States. One of the cancers that NewLink is working with is pancreatic cancer, which is the most lethal and fastest killing. In the last 40 years, the cure rates have gone up from two percent to four percent. The trial begin in May 2010.

“(It’s) a new way of thinking about how to attack cancer,” said Link.

Link’s curiosity about science began at a young age.

“When I was younger I like science. I really liked chemist. then I learned about Bio Chemistry. If you go into biological chemistry, really medicine is the only area that makes the most sense. So I’m sort of following my scientific curiosity.”

After graduating from St. John’s High School, Link was appointed to the Air Force Academy by John Glenn. From there, he went on to Stanford Medical School.

“I was actually living in Silicon Valley for about eight years. It gives you a different perspective on life. You really come to believe that if you have a good idea, building companies around them maximizes our opportunities is normal there.”

But Link was taught to dream big even before he left the valley by Father Price at St. Johns and of course by his parents.

His believed in her children receiving an education, since she herself was not able to. His father worked at Weirton Steel and reminded his kids that they had a choice to either work with their hands or their heads, the choice was theirs. Link finds it funny that when his father did work at Weirton Steel, he had a 40 mile commute, just like he has now.

Now as NewLink is currently employing 85 employee, Link is looking to expand into other parts of the states and Ohio is one of the places he is considering.

“My dad always liked the idea of coming back and doing something in the valley.”

It was the work ethic and values in Iowa, much like the ones he grew up with, that caused him to build there in the first place.

“It’s been an interesting journey,” said Link.

Van Dyne may be reached at