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Management Team

Ghatnekar

Gautam Ghatnekar, PhD
President and CEO

Dr. Ghatnekar is President and CEO of FirstString Research, a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company dedicated to delivering breakthrough solutions for inflammation and injury based medical conditions through a better understanding of the molecular and cellular contexts that define the underlying pathology. FirstString is focused on diseases associated with dysregulation of inflammatory processes and modulation of injury response, such as cutaneous radiation injury, radiation dermatitis, and wounds. FirstString’s technology is based on connexin-based peptides (α-Connexin Carboxyl-Terminal or aCT peptides) that exert profound healing effects on diseased and damaged tissue. Under Dr. Ghatnekar’s leadership, FirstString Research has developed a robust product pipeline and is advancing the clinical development of its lead dermatology product, Granexin® gel.  Granexin® has been tested in multiple successful clinical trials and is currently in late-stage trials for cutaneous radiation injury and cutaneous scarring.

Dr. Ghatnekar is well published and has multiple US and International patents to his name.  He serves on NIH study sections, and is PI or Co-PI on multiple NIH and DoD grants/contracts. Over the last decade, Dr. Ghatnekar has raised significant capital for research and development via institutional investors, angel funds, and federal and state grant/contracts.

Dr. Ghatnekar earned a Ph.D. in 2004 from North Carolina State University in Comparative Biomedical Science with an emphasis on cellular and developmental toxicology. Dr. Ghatnekar was a post-doctoral fellow at the Medical University of South Carolina where he studied regenerative medicine and discovered the translational benefits of aCT peptides, which led to the formation of FirstString Research. Prior to becoming President and CEO of FirstString, Dr. Ghatnekar served as the Company’s Chief Scientific Officer. He currently serves as Chairman of Regranion, on the board of directors of the South Carolina Student Loan Corporation, and the Medical Technology Enterprise Consortium (MTEC).


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Christina Grek, PhD
Senior Director of Research and Development

Dr. Grek is an experienced translational scientist with foundations in both industry and academia. After receiving her BScH at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, Dr. Grek pursued a career in industry at the biotech startup KAIROS Scientific, where she aided in the development of a high-throughput technology, that enables solid phase enzyme screening of mutagenized bacterial libraries expressing enzymes that have undergone directed evolution.  She then worked as a cancer researcher in the drug discovery team at SUGEN, a pioneering drug discovery company focused on the development of small-molecule protein kinase inhibitors as cancer therapeutics. At SUGEN, Dr. Grek developed a keen understanding of the pipeline components involved in drug discovery protocols and the development of successful therapeutics.

Dr. Grek earned a PhD in Biomedical Sciences at the Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC, where she studied the role of oxygen sensitive genes in the alveolar epithelium and successfully designed and developed a novel semi-permeable hollow fiber based membrane system that enables the culture and differentiation of alveolar epithelial cells. At MUSC, she continued her pursuit as a translational scientist through a series of preclinical and clinical studies focusing on the discovery and development of pharmacodynamic biomarkers for current and novel redox modulating chemotherapeutics. Dr. Grek was also instrumental in a drug discovery program involving the screening, development, and evaluation of small molecule inhibitors that target protein disulfide isomerase that may serve as the basis for future cancer therapeutic development.   She has extensive experience in the development of in vivo and in vitro model systems as well as experience in the development and implementation of preclinical and clinical studies.


Stefanie Cuebas
Director of Operations

Stefanie Cuebas joined FirstString in 2009 to streamline business operations and administration. Since then, Ms. Cuebas has flourished within the company, working closely with President and CEO, Dr. Gautam Ghatnekar, to plan, organize and oversee key business activities and programs. She has played an instrumental role in the company’s growth, ensuring operations are running smoothly and end goals are met. Prior to joining FirstString, Ms. Cuebas worked in public relations and program management at the City of Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from the College of Charleston.


Travis McQuiston

Travis McQuiston, PhD
Director of Translational Research

Dr. McQuiston has a broad range of experience in cellular therapy and regenerative medicine to address unmet medical needs. Before joining FirstString Research, Dr. McQuiston was employed at Propagenix Inc, an R&D-stage cell therapy company with proprietary platforms for epithelial cell bioproduction, where he worked to identify potential applications for the company’s patented technology while also assessing possible competitive advantages. Dr. McQuiston worked on several successful programs including an engineered skin therapy, next-generation airway epithelium models, and novel cancer models for tumor-specific drug screening. Dr. McQuiston also led internal efforts and external collaborations in basic research through preclinical animal models for several other early-stage projects focusing on epithelial tissue diseases.

Dr. McQuiston earned a PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the Medical University of South Carolina where he investigated the role of mammalian sphingolipid biosynthesis in the host immune response against pathogenic fungi. To advance his research experience and efforts towards the clinical setting, Dr. McQuiston accepted a position as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Translational Mycology Unit of the Laboratory of Clinical Infectious Diseases at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease in the NIH. Dr. McQuiston examined the role of the RNA helicase DDX6 family members in the transcriptional regulation of autophagy and mammalian inflammasome activation. During his postdoctoral tenure, Dr. McQuiston advanced this extensive translational work from in vitro models and cell-based assays to the development of novel mouse models and eventually leading to the clinical setting in attempts to understand how patient genetics lead to pulmonary cryptococcosis.


Carissa James

Carissa James, PhD
Head of Discovery

Dr. James is a translational scientist committed to discovering novel therapeutic opportunities and translating basic research into clinical successes in the field of intercellular junctions. She earned a PhD in Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health program at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at Virginia Tech, where she investigated the role of GJA1-20k, an alternatively translated isoform of Connexin43 encompassing the C-terminus, in cancer progression. Dr. James identified translation of GJA1, the mRNA coding for Cx43 and GJA1-20k, as a target for TGF-b, and a novel mechanism by which intercellular junctions are degraded during epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT). EMT is fundamental to wound healing in epithelial cells, development, and cancer metastasis. This discovery and her interest in translational biology led her to FirstString Research, where she is focused on the development of therapeutics that capitalize on the translational potential of the Cx43 C-terminus. Dr. James is an expert on the junctional and non-junctional roles of the Cx43 C-terminus and the mechanisms by which aCT1 peptide modulates the behavior of junctional proteins.