Building a Platform to Fight Disease
Chances are you’ve never heard of lymphangioleiomyomatosis, a rare lung disease that mostly affects women in their thirties and forties. With this disease, which is also called LAM, patients get strange cysts in their lungs that destroy lung function. Fewer than 5,000 patients are currently diagnosed with LAM.
There is no known cure, but a recent report published in the New England Journal of Medicine in March 2011 showed that the progression of the disease could be temporarily halted with the drug sirolimus. Interestingly, improvements correlated with decreased levels of VEGF-D, a growth factor that stimulates the formation of new lymph vessels.
“The results of this study suggest that LAM patients could benefit from a drug that neutralizes excess VEGF-D,” says Dana Ault-Riché, CEO of Reflexion, a startup that is creating a novel class of drugs, including one for VEGF-D.
This is where UChicagoTech, the University of Chicago’s Office of Technology and Intellectual Property, enters the story. Last year, UChicagoTech invested $30,000 in Reflexion, which prompted $450,000 from additional investors. UChicagoTech recently launched an Innovation Fund to target promising translational research projects that address significant, unmet needs. The awards process is open and competitive. This year, as part of the Innovation Fund’s pilot phase, UChicagoTech awarded Reflexion $75,000.
“These funds are helping Reflexion demonstrate that it can produce a platform of drugs for treating a variety of diseases,” says Alan Thomas, director of UChicagoTech. “We hope this award will lead to millions of dollars in additional funding.”
This is, in fact, beginning to happen, Ault-Riché says. “The UChicagoTech award allowed us to complete our technical proof-of-concept, one of three critical milestones in the life of a start-up. We’re moving on to the next milestone, the clinical proof-of-concept, so we can proceed to the final milestone; getting a product approved.”
Reflexion is also using its platform to treat wet age-related macular degeneration. This condition can be treated by drugs that block a related growth factor, VEGF-A.
Current therapies involve frequently injecting drugs directly into the eye but Reflexion’s drug is designed to be dosed as eye drops, which would significantly ease the burden to patients and reduce costs.
Besides working with UChicagoTech, Reflexion partners with scientists at the University of Chicago and other research centers. Stephen Kent, professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago, co-founded the company in 2009, along with Ault-Riché and Sachdev Sidhu, professor of molecular biology at the University of Toronto. “Our partnerships with universities that have world-leading expertise in chemical protein synthesis, protein crystallography, phage display and molecular design enabled us to make this happen,” Ault-Riché says.
Meanwhile, the Innovation Fund is poised to jump-start other research innovations coming out of the University of Chicago. “There’s a formidable pipeline of promising research at Argonne [National Laboratory] and the University of Chicago,” says Doug Given, an Investment partner at Bay City Capital and one of the outside experts who serve on the Innovation Fund’s selection committee, which advises the University on which projects to award.
“I think within the foreseeable future we should be able to build up a $5 million fund and be giving out grants of $250,000 each,” Given added. “That would create a lot of enthusiasm about the Innovation Fund and stimulate translational research and the commercialization of innovative ideas at the University of Chicago and all around the Midwest.”
By Greg Borzo
*UChicago Tech is now the Tech Commercialization team at the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in recognition of a $50M gift from Michael Polsky in 2016 to expanded the Polsky Center in order to unify and enhance UChicago’s leading venture creation initiatives. Learn more about this transformational gift. >>