Heart Matters to Clinician-Scientist Maliha Zahid


Many conditions and diseases require repetitive radiological scans for diagnosis, prognosis or treatment monitoring. These repetitive scans not only increase healthcare costs but have been estimated to contribute to 7,400 excess cancer diagnoses per year in the US alone.

Patients routinely screened for possible stroke, internal bleeding or various types of heart disease all face this repetitive scanning, resulting in exposure to high doses of radiation. Imaging specific organ anatomy, such as the coronary arteries of the heart, requires injection of dyes that label the entire vascular system. This standard-of-care method leads to non-specific labeling and is inefficient for image resolution. For other diagnostic studies like nuclear stress tests, the injected dye is radioactive and exposes the patient to significant radiation doses related to the dye.

Maliha Zahid, MD, PhD, cardiologist-scientist at the University of Pittsburgh, recognized a significant unmet healthcare need in imaging patients’ coronary arteries and heart function to achieve high-sensitivity and minimize side effects. Zahid’s PhD thesis work led to the identification of a novel, non-naturally occurring 12-amino acid peptide, known as the Cardiac Targeting Peptide (CTP) that targets cardiomyocytes to improve imaging sensitivity and reduce the potential for side effects.

In 2016, Zahid applied to Pitt’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute’s Pitt Innovation Challenge (PInCh) in order to advance her research findings toward clinical application. Through CTSI’s collaboration with sciVelo, Zahid was supported across the early-stage commercial translation spectrum from pre-clinical study design to regulatory and reimbursement perspectives. While Zahid was very experienced in presenting her work at basic scientific and clinical research forums, the commercial translation support from PInCh and the sciVelo team motivated her to request assistance in constructing a compelling story around the Cardiac Targeting Peptide’s commercial translation critical path.

“I found it amazing how easy it was to present my work in scientific terms but how difficult it was for me to convey my scientific impact in commercial applications and to pitch it to non-scientific and clinical audiences. This is where sciVelo and CTSI really helped me to grow and to learn an entirely new set of translational development skills.”

“The sciVelo team was invaluable in refining my pitch presentation and in articulating my research to be well-understood by a broader audience. Their coaching was crucial in receiving a first-place PInCh award, worth $100,000 in research funding. In the ensuing six months, sciVelo members, Danielle [Minteer] and Megan [Breski] have been extremely approachable, available, and have helped me assemble methods to feature my research findings and to identify further sources of translational research funding within the University.”

Maliha Zahid, MD, PhD, University of Pittsburgh Department of Developmental Biology

sciVelo continues to assist Zahid on science strategy, while the Innovation Institute focuses on the commercialization of her research as a startup company. Following the PInCh Award, Zahid was honored with the American Heart Association (AHA) Investigator Award for $250,000. In addition, Zahid has participated in several additional commercial translation training programs within the Innovation Institute, including the 2017 Second Gear and Fourth Gear Programs to further develop her commercialization knowledge. In collaborating with the Innovation Institute, Zahid and her co-inventors have been granted a US patent on the CTP technology and plan to spin out a start-up company, CardioTrak, in the near future.

“Paul (Petrovitch), Kevin (Mendelsohn) and Philip (Brooks) of the Innovation Institute, along with Hank (Safferstein) of Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse, have been instrumental in coaching and furthering my education in my commercialization efforts, constantly guiding me in defining goals and a path to achieving them.”

“I recommend any clinical-scientist venturing into the world of entrepreneurship to contact CTSI and sciVelo early and utilize these resources fully.

sciVelo is an invaluable window into the intersection of science and business where most physician-scientists are not familiar and find it daunting to navigate.

Further, the sciVelo team was incredibly helpful at helping me connect with the later-stage commercialization resources at Pitt, such as the Innovation Institute. We truly have a strategic and sensible continuum of academic medical commercial translation support at Pitt that’s working.”

Maliha Zahid, MD, PhD, University of Pittsburgh Department of Developmental Biology

Author/Photographer: Alyssa B. Lypson, MS