May 21, 2010
This month we attended the Massachusetts Technology Transfer Center’s 6th annual Early-Stage Life Sciences Technology Conference. What we saw was indicative of a vibrant, entrepreneurial life sciences ecosystem. The first highlight was the host—Merck. The conference was held at Merck’s Longwood area facility which only opened in 2004. The company’s Reid Leonard, Ph.D., an executive director of licensing and external research, acted as a company spokesperson. Once the conferees were seated in the building’s auditorium, Leonard welcomed the audience of start-up scientists (and venture capitalists). More specifically, he made Merck’s interest in their work clear. “…Obviously all of our products have to start somewhere,” explained Leonard whose job it is to in-license products from the kinds of people in the audience. He went to emphasize the role that Merck’s Longwood campus represents. A “minimal” footprint allows Merck to effectively “live in the community” and “allows them to benefit from the local culture.” Leonard went on to comment that he “can’t make [Merck] a biotech company”, but that instead Merck had come to Boston to be among them.
The conference also featured a number of local companies and gave them opportunities to share posters as well as presentations. Here we highlight the conferences five youngest companies and the gist of the unmet needs they are pursuing. The novelty of the ideas shared as well as their breadth speak to the “local culture.”
Annovation BioPharma– seeking to revisit anesthesia. The company’s lead product, Rapidate, is an anesthetic whose pharmacokinetics could mean faster on- and off- times for surgical anesthesia. Annovation touts that this will reduce the amount of operating room time required per surgery. Other benefits include enhanced safety as well as reduced time in post-operative recovery rooms. Nick Barker, PhD; Doug Raines, MD
CardioHeal– treating heart failure by stimulating heart muscle regeneration. The unmet need is regenerative therapies for heart failure. The company has demonstrated that recombinant periostin, a peptide known to be capable of mediating profibrogenic signals, has the ability to recruit the body’s latent proliferative capacity and induce permanent, structural improvements in animal subjects. Bernhard Kühn, MD and Roger Hajjar, MD.
Epsilon Therapeutics– People that suffer parasitic diseases tend not to suffer from inflammatory illnesses such as allergies or irritable bowel syndrome. Parasitic infection is met by the body’s immune system, including responses coordinated by immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies. These are the same antibodies that are blamed for responses to allergens. The company’s founder, Lisa Ganley-Leal, PhD, believes parasites may evade IgE antibodies. For example, the parasites might be releasing peptides that interfere with IgE antibodies. The result is a muted IgE response, and, possibly, less sneezing in the spring. Ganley-Leal claims that Epsilon has a unique approach to identifying novel drug candidates for the treatment inflammatory diseases.
Fatih Yanik, Ph.D. – This presenter’s company is so new, it didn’t even have a name! Professor Yanik has developed a means for achieving high throughput screening of zebrafish larva by combining microfluidics and confocal microscopy. Such an automated system has the potential to deliver compound screening results from whole animals, but on a high throughput basis. Such an information arbitrage might draw significant attention from companies seeking to identify lead compounds for diseases not easily modeled by single cells, for example, neurodegenerative disorders.
ImmuneXcite– seeks to develop a cancer therapeutic by harnessing polysaccharides that draws significant cell killing power from the body’s immune system including neutrophils. More specifically, their approach is to conjugate cancer-specific antibodies to polysaccharides found on the surface of fungi. In effect, ImmuneXcite hopes to make a patient’s cancer cells look like an invading fungi, which is met with a formidable response by the immune system. The polysaccharide can be conjugated to a variety of antibodies. This approach allows ImmuneXcite to use a variety of established antibodies—such as one that might have failed to demonstrate enough efficacy for approval—and enhance its “cell killing power.” Ifat Rubin-Bejerano, PhD.