Biotech Startups at UNC Showcase Target Urgent Medical Needs

Xconomy Raleigh-Durham — 

A technology that delivers drugs across the blood-brain barrier. A medical device developed to diagnose sepsis. And a potential new treatment for radiation contamination during a disaster. These were some of the technologies on display Wednesday evening at the Innovation Showcase, an annual event that shines the spotlight on companies that have spun out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

This year’s innovation showcase featured some 70 business ventures in information technology, healthcare, food, and more. I couldn’t get to all of them but I made a point of catching talks given by the pharma and medical technology companies. Here’s a look at the life science companies that presented at this year’s showcase:

Renovion is developing treatments for respiratory conditions. Lung transplant patients have no FDA approved therapies to help them fight off infections after receiving their new organs, says Dan Copeland, CEO of the Chapel Hill-based company. Furthermore, he says, survival rates in lung transplant patients lag those of other solid organ transplants. Renovion’s inhalable compound, Arina-1, was developed to reduce infections in the lungs. The drug is currently being tested in a Phase 1 clinical trial at Duke University. Copeland, whose experience includes work on respiratory products for GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK) says the Renovion technology could also have applications in cystic fibrosis, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

—The blood-brain barrier serves a protective role, preventing compounds in the blood from getting into the brain. But that semi-permeable membrane also keeps out therapeutic compounds. NeuroNano Pharma has developed a way to bring therapies across that barrier. The Chapel Hill company is applying its technology to Hunter syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that leads to a deficiency in an enzyme important to brain health. NeuroNano’s nanotechnology aims to deliver the key enzyme through the barrier, providing a treatment for Hunter syndrome, says Diane Ignar, the company’s chief scientific officer and head of research and development. NeuroNano’s technology is based on research from Alexander Kabanov, a professor at UNC’s Eshelman School of Pharmacy.

—Altis Biosystems aims to make drug toxicity screening easier with a kit intended to offer an alternative to animal testing. PrimeCell contains human intestinal cells on a porous scaffold. CEO Michael Biron says the technology could be used by pharmaceutical companies and contract research organizations for drug discovery work. The company is in the process of validating the technology, which Biron says could eventually be expanded to incorporate cells from other organs.

—Up to 10 percent of drug candidates fail because they’re toxic to mitochondria, the power plants of the cell that provide the energy for them to divide and grow. There are no tests for mitochondrial toxicity, says Joe Ruiz, president of Enzerna Biosciences. Using RNA editing techniques to engineer mitochondria, Enzerna aims to create cell line and animal models of mitochondrial disease that the company says can be used to test drugs for toxicity. Ruiz says the company is in talks with pharma companies to validate the technology.

—The federal government stockpiles a drug approved to treat radiation contamination from a “dirty bomb” explosion or a nuclear accident. But this drug, DTPA, must be administered intravenously by a medical professional— tough to coordinate in a disaster, says Thomas Pitler, CEO of Capture Pharmaceuticals. The Chapel Hill company developed its compound, C2E2, as an alternative. The drug binds to and removes toxic metals from the body. As a pill, the drug is easy to distribute and does not require a doctor or nurse to administer it, Pitler says. Capture plans to seek FDA approval through the “animal rule,” which permits approval through animal tests in cases where human tests aren’t ethical or feasible.

—Sepsis, an immune response to infection, is treatable but difficult to diagnose because it shows itself through a combination of nonspecific symptoms, says Clinical Sensors CEO Philippe Chemla. As many as 1.6 million people in the U.S. annually are diagnosed with sepsis, which kills an estimated 258,000, he says. Clinical Sensors has developed a point-of-care diagnostic device that screens for nitric oxide, a biomarker of sepsis that increases as the condition progresses. Clinical Sensors’ device uses microfluidics to measure nitric oxide from just a few drops of blood. Chemla says his company plans to test the technology this year in burn patients being treated at the Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Health Care. The device is based on intellectual property licensed from Mark Schoenfisch, a UNC professor of chemistry.

Dualogics engineers bispecific antibodies for therapeutic and diagnostic applications. While monoclonal antibodies recognize a single antigen target, bispecific antibodies recognize two targets. Essentially, a single molecule can be designed to hit two different targets. Ryan Hallett, Dualogics’ chief operating officer, says his company’s OrthoMab technology can manufacture bispecific antibodies that are more customizable, stable, and scalable when compared against other bispecific technology platforms. Dualogics’ pipeline includes bispecific antibodies for prostate cancer and type 1 diabetes.

—While respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) typically causes mild, cold-like symptoms, the infection can be more serious in infants and adults. Of the estimated 2 million U.S. cases each year, 60,000 lead to hospitalization, contributing to $2 billion in healthcare costs, says Sam Lai, founder and temporary CEO of Mucommune. Those RSV cases kill an estimated 14,000 elderly patients annually, he says. Mucommune technology uses “muco-trapping” antibodies to immobilize pathogens in mucus. While RSV is Mucommune’s lead target, Lai, a professor in UNC’s Eshelman School of Pharmacy, says the company’s technology has other applications. For example, Mucommune has also developed a vaginal ring that acts as a contraceptive.

Photo by Flickr user William Yeung via a Creative Commons license.