When a major biomedical discovery is made in a laboratory, it often takes decades before this research can help patients. The translation to turn the discovery into a commercially available device or drug is challenging and has traditionally involved established pharmaceutical companies. From within the heart of the Texas Medical Center, the Texas A&M Institute of Biosciences and Technology is harnessing commercialization to get medical discoveries to patients in a more efficient way: through spinoff companies.
Most of this success is due to Magnus Höök, PhD, regents and distinguished professor at the Institute of Biosciences and Technology. Since the 1990s, Höök has been developing projects for commercialization, and his work has resulted in the granting of a number of patents.
“I’m very interested in figuring out how to translate what we learn in the lab into something that can help the public,” Höök said. “I think this is a major reason universities are engaging in research, and with Texas A&M being a land-grant university, we have a history of trying to take our knowledge to benefit communities. It seems a little easier for us because we have the support and tradition of the entire university behind us.”
Höök tried to interest established pharmaceutical companies in technologies developed in his laboratory that potentially could protect and prevent infections by methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. Unsuccessful, he decided to start a separate company, Inhibitex, in 1994. Inhibitex, Inc., was supported by venture capital and, after moving to Atlanta, Georgia, became a U.S. publicly-traded, clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company. Inhibitex was acquired in February 2012 by Bristol-Myers Squibb. It was the first life sciences company that spun out of Texas A&M to go public, and, in the process, the company raised $300 million. However, the vaccine against MRSA is still under development 20 years after its discovery.
The Inhibitex experience gave Höök ideas of how to develop and move technologies more efficiently from academic laboratories to the marketplace. He applied these lessons to his second venture, Pulmotect, which he founded together with colleagues at MD Anderson Cancer Center. Pulmotect is commercializing an inhaled product that protects, in animal models at least, against numerous infections. The product, which has demonstrated safety in phase I clinical trials in humans, stimulates the body’s innate immune system, which is more primitive than the adaptive immune system targeted by more traditional vaccines, but at the same time is immediate and broad. In other words, it works very quickly and defends against many different types of infections. Pulmotect has partnered with Fannin Innovation Studio, a Houston-based biotechnology development group, and up till now has been funded primarily by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the Texas Emerging Technology Fund and Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT).
“The key to developing a spin-out company from academia is to partner with the university and seek to fund the early stages by grants and small private investments rather than venture capital. Furthermore, it is effective to move a project like this forward with the help of a recent graduate, who, in turn, gets a good introduction to biotechnology in the process,” Höök said. “We’re trying to give graduate students exposure to commercialization strategies and make the transition to biotech easier if they see this area as part of their future careers.”
The mentoring process for graduate students is proving beneficial for both mentor and mentee.
“Dr. Höök really has an entrepreneurial mindset,” said Brooke Russell, PhD, assistant professor at the Center for Infectious and Inflammatory Diseases at the Institute of Biosciences and Technology and a former student of Höök’s center.
Russell was one of these graduate students. She collaborated with Höök on a patent for making recombinant collagen in bacteria. Collagen is used in over a thousand biomedical products, but the available source today is unclean byproducts from animal slaughter. Texas A&M’s “designer collagen” can be manipulated for various medical needs, from wound healing to repairing damaged parts of the vascular system. And the best part? It’s inexpensive.
This recombinant collagen is now licensed to startup company ECM Technologies, which Höök and Russell co-founded. They’re hoping to file with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in about two years. “Essentially, we can create designer collagen, tailored to the exact need we have for it,” Russell said. She sees this technology as being especially useful for chronic wounds like the ones diabetics experience.
“Scientists are not always the best people to do what is needed to get discoveries all the way to patients: raise money, cut through regulatory red tape, convince people that the technology will work,” Höök said. “But we do make important discoveries, and if we can also do the early translation and take the initial steps in drug development, we should be able to get these discoveries faster to the patients that benefit from them.”