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How to Tap Russia for Biomedical Breakthroughs: Lessons from Boston BioCom

Xconomy Boston — 

Boston is an international hotbed of biotech research. So why would a company called Boston BioCom specialize, as it does, in bringing biomedical discoveries to the Hub from Russia?

To hear the folks at Boston BioCom tell it, Russia has some biotech brawn of its own. New York-based drug giant Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) invested $10 million in the Boston-based firm in summer 2008 to help it tap Russia for life sciences discoveries that could be commercialized in the US and elsewhere. And the company has already established two programs to bring science from Russian institutions to market.

Why Russia? Jeffrey Gelfand, chief scientific officer of Boston BioCom and a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, said that the U.S. State Department began pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into Russian institutions after the fall of the Soviet Union to redirect the efforts of former weapons scientists to medical and non-defense pursuits. Though the U.S. has wound down this funding as the Russian economy has strengthened, the resulting biomedical discoveries from the research makes Russia a viable source of medical technology.

Gelfand isn’t making this up. In San Francisco, a biotech called Medivation (NASDAQ:MDVN) is in late-stage clinical development of an antihistamine drug from Russia to treat Alzheimer’s disease. Also, ProTom International, based in Flower Mound, TX, is developing next-generation proton therapy systems for cancer treatment based on technology licensed from the Lebedev Physics Institute in Moscow. ProTom researchers have collaborated with scientists from MIT’s Bates Linear Accelerator Center in Middleton, MA, to enhance the system.

“I think [ProTom] is a perfect example of what we hope to do ourselves,” Gelfand said.

Boston BioCom has three main biomedical technologies in development, two of which stem from discoveries in Russia, while the third is from Gelfand’s own lab at MGH. The Russian-born technologies include a laser energy system, which is designed to boost immune responses in the skin, and an antibacterial therapy program, which is focused on using molecules called bacteriocins as drugs. (In nature, bacteria produce bacteriocins to fend off attacks from other bacteria.) The firm’s program from Gelfand’s lab involves the use of engineered antibodies—in this case, monoclonal antibodies fused with recombinant heat shock proteins—to treat cancer and infectious diseases.

The firm licensed the bacteriocin technology from Valenta, a drug-maker based in Moscow. Boston BioCom has formed a wholly owned subsidiary, called Bacteriocin Therapeutics, which is operated by BioCom executives and funded by the parent firm. Jantibody Therapeutics was formed under the same organizational framework to commercialize Gelfand’s engineered antibodies. In the future, Boston BioCom may spin off its subsidiaries, which would raise their own money from outside investors.

It’s no accident that the crew at Boston BioCom is collaborating with Russian scientists. Before the company was formed, the US State Department awarded a grant to MGH to assist with its BioIndustry Initiative, a program to transition former Soviet biological weapons scientists to biomedical research jobs. Gelfand, working with the MGH-affiliated Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology, led the group that helped the department implement the program. Other members of that MGH team included Frank Dinucci, a veteran financial executive who now serves as president and CEO of Boston BioCom, and Tim Brauns, who is now vice president of strategy for the firm. Partners HealthCare System, of which MGH is a member, founded Boston BioCom in 2007.

Given their experience with the State Department program, the firm’s team has built a large network of connections with scientists and life sciences companies in Russia. The firm has established close ties with Maxwell Biotech, a Russian venture capital fund, as well as research institutions such as Moscow State University and the Institute of Cytology in St. Petersburg. The company also employs Americans who were born in Russia or other former Soviet states.

Boston BioCom is now raising $25 million in capital to advance its research programs and commercialization efforts, company executives say.