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UConn TIP Farmington Startup Sets Sights on Curing Retinal-Disease Blindness

Published on UConn Today / May 24, 2017

Claire Hall

Nicole Wagner, president and CEO of LambdaVision, which was founded through support from UConn’s Technology Commercialization Services in 2009.

Nicole Wagner, president and CEO of LambdaVision, which was founded through support from UConn’s Technology Commercialization Services in 2009.

Tucked inside a small laboratory at UConn’s Technology Incubation Program (TIP) in Farmington, Conn., Nicole Wagner is trying to cure vision impairment and blindness for more than 30 million people worldwide.

Using a protein, grown in the laboratory and implanted behind the retina, this promising new procedure offers hope for patients with age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and other retinal diseases.

“These are terrible diseases that truly impact the quality of life for many people,’’ said Wagner, the president and CEO of LambdaVision. “To offer patients the possibility of restoring their vision provides them the chance to see a new grandchild, resume a golf game, drive again or read a favorite book. For many people, restored vision would allow them to return to an independent life.’’

LambdaVision uses a light-activated protein, bacteriorhodopsin, to stimulate the retina of patients suffering from impaired or lost vision due to retinal degenerative diseases. The protein, isolated from high-salt environments, including the Dead Sea, is grown and purified in the laboratory. The protein works by absorbing light and converting it into a signal that is picked up by specialized cells in the retina, relayed to the optic nerve and ultimately interpreted by the brain.

More than 31 million people worldwide suffer from irreversible vision loss caused by macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa. The incidence of blindness caused by retinal degenerative diseases is increasing at a rapid rate due to an increase in the global geriatric population, Wagner said.

LambdaVision’s implant can restore high-quality vision to those patients who are no longer candidates for traditional treatments and have end-stage retinal degeneration, Wagner said. Current treatments only succeed in slowing the progression of disease.

LambdaVision was founded through support from UConn’s Technology Commercialization Services in 2009. Dr. Robert R. Birge, distinguished professor of chemistry at UConn, led a research group that included Wagner.

The protein is in pre-clinical trials across the country to determine the stability and efficacy of the implant.

“LambdaVision has been incredibly fortunate to have the continued support of UConn and the State of Connecticut, and we owe much of our success to the incredible mentors that have helped us to propel the research and development and commercialization of the technology,’’ she said. “In the early stages of development, they were the believers.’’

LambdaVision has won many awards, including most recently: a 2016 UConn SPARK Technology Commercialization Fund Award and the prestigious 2016 MassChallenge CASIS-Boeing Prize for Technology, which allows the company to carry out experiments aboard the International Space Station. Since gravity can interfere with the uniformity of the retinal implant films, the hope is that work done in microgravity will be faster and yield improvements in the homogeneity and stability of the product.

The company also won the $15,000 Wolff New Venture Prize, sponsored by UConn’s Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CCEI) and a National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research Grant.

“To be on the brink of a new and exciting medical breakthrough is thrilling,’’ Wagner said. “I’m very eager to see this technology available in the medical community where it can make a difference in people’s lives.’’

UConn Technology Incubation Program Company, Torigen, Inc., among Other High-impact Startups Participating in MassChallenge 2017 Cohort

Published on MassChallenge / May 23, 2017

MassChallenge, the most startup-friendly accelerator on the planet, today announced the 128 early-stage startups that have been accepted into the 2017 MassChallenge Boston accelerator program. Selected by a community of more than 850 expert judges, this year’s competitive cohort represents the top 8% of applications from around the world, including 12 countries and 16 U.S. states.

Through a global network of zero-equity accelerators, MassChallenge helps the world’s highest-impact, highest-potential startups successfully launch, grow, and create impact across industries. This proven model has accelerated 1,211 alumni that have gone on to raise more than $2 billion in funding, generate approximately $900 million in revenue, and create over than 65,000 direct and indirect jobs.

“The quality of this year’s applicant pool is a real testament to the community’s efforts to inspire and support individuals who are working to solve some of the world’s biggest problems,” said Kiki Mills Johnston, Managing Director, MassChallenge Boston. “I’m excited to welcome the 2017 cohort to Boston this summer. This is just the beginning!”

Since March, top investors, serial entrepreneurs, corporate executives, academics, and more have evaluated over 1,500 applications based on each startup’s ability to demonstrate impact and potential, which ranges from scientific breakthroughs to industry disruptions. Many of these judges remain actively involved throughout the four-month MassChallenge Boston program as mentors, speakers, and even potential partners.

Of the 128 startups selected:

  • 30% are healthcare and life sciences
  • 29% are high tech
  • 20% are general, retail and consumer goods
  • 16% are social impact
  • 6% are cleantech and energy

As part of the 2017 cohort, startups will have unrivaled access to top corporate partners, expert mentorship, tailored curriculum, and more than 26,000 square-feet of co-working space in Boston’s dynamic Innovation and Design Building – all at zero cost and for zero equity. Entrepreneurs developing physical products also have an opportunity to take advantage of MADE @MassChallenge, the organization’s 5,000 square-foot research and development lab, which provides the equipment and support needed to design, develop, and scale hardware solutions.

The accelerator program will culminate on November 2, 2017 at the MassChallenge Boston Awards, where the most-promising startups compete for shares of more than $1.5 million in equity-free awards.

“Over the past seven years, MassChallenge has graduated more than 1,200 entrepreneurs from our intensive accelerator, enabling them to create enormous impact around the world,” said John Harthorne, Founder and CEO of MassChallenge. “We are proud to welcome such a high-potential class of startups to MassChallenge, and are excited to help them define their future and maximize their impact.”

Now in its eighth year, MassChallenge has continued to drive innovation around the world through its global network of accelerators in Boston, Israel, Mexico, Switzerland, and the U.K. In addition to existing programs, the organization experienced significant growth in 2016 with the launch of several new initiatives. Locally, MassChallenge Boston launched the Newton Innovation Center, a 5,000 square-foot co-working space in collaboration with CIC and the City of Newton, and PULSE @MassChallenge, a zero-equity innovation lab that connects digital health entrepreneurs to the region’s leading institutions, corporates, payors, and healthcare experts. Top startups from the first-ever PULSE @MassChallenge cohort will compete for shares of more than $200,000 in equity-free awards at PULSE Finale on June 13, 2017.

UConn TIP Company Finds Drug Triggers Immune System to Fight Cancer in Pets

Published on UConn Today / May 22, 2017

Claire Hall

Every time the veterinarian removed the cancerous tumor from the back of “BW,’’ a sweet-faced, well-loved, white cat, the malignancy would return two or three weeks later.

The cat’s owner opted to try a revolutionary veterinary cancer treatment, called VetiVax, which triggers the animal’s immune system to fight the disease. After the third treatment, the fibrosarcoma tumor didn’t recur, and “BW’’ has been healthy for 2½ years.

UConn alumna Ashley Kalinauskas is the CEO of Torigen Pharmaceuticals, the Farmington, Connecticut-based company that creates the new treatment. She is currently marketing it to veterinarians and is anticipating rapid growth for her startup.

“When I meet people whose family pets have been diagnosed with cancer, they are heartbroken,’’ Kalinauskas said. “They want the very best for their pet. But few people can afford to pay upwards of $5,000 for chemotherapy and radiation.’’

Each year over 8 million dogs and cats are diagnosed with cancer. Almost half of all dogs and cats over age 10 will die of one form of the disease.

Until now, the standard treatment was chemotherapy and radiation, which are both expensive and could potentially have negative side effects. Vetivax uses the animal’s own tumor and tumor-associated antigens to stimulate the pet’s immune system to fight the disease. The personalized treatment, a series of injections, costs about $1,200.

“For both pet owners and veterinarians, VetiVax is another tool in the toolbox,’’ she said. “It provides hope to have an affordable treatment option with limited side effects. The reaction from veterinarians has been very positive.’’

“Our end goal is extending the survival time for these animals and achieving remission,’’ Kalinauskas said. To date, more than 150 animals have been treated with 60 percent exceeding expected survival benchmarks.

The novel approach to treatment of cancer in pets has resulted in a successful preliminary response in 11 types of cancer. Fewer than 3 percent of the animals experienced side effects, and most were minor, including mild lethargy, irritation, and redness at the injection site.

Kalinauskas earned a bachelor’s degree in pathobiology and veterinary sciences at UConn, and then went to the University of Notre Dame for graduate degrees in science and business. There, she won second place in the Notre Dame McCloskey Business Plan Competition alongside her professor and inventor of this technology, veterinarian Mark Suckow. The business plan competition inspired the team to launch Torigen and VetiVax and bring them to the marketplace.

“Connecticut is my home and I wanted to return here,’’ she said. Through the UConn Technology Incubation Program (TIP), she has dedicated laboratory space, access to unique research and development facilities, and advice from business experts and investors that can help grow the company.

“We recently received $100,000 from the UConn Innovation Fund, and additional funding from Connecticut Innovations and private investors,’’ she said. “The funding from UConn is allowing me to collect and present additional clinical data to veterinarians.’’

“Veterinarians are ‘scientific skeptics’ and want to see evidence of results. When I show them what we’ve accomplished, they are very excited,’’ Kalinauskas said. “Immunotherapy is the future of cancer medicine, not only for animals but for humans as well.’’

UConn Technology Incubation Program Hosts Inaugural Investment Event

Published on UConn Innovation Portal / May 17, 2017

It was standing room only at the inaugural UConn Technology Incubation Program (TIP) Innovation & Investment Series event this week at UConn Health in Farmington. Startup CEOs, entrepreneurs and members of the angel and venture capital community from throughout New England were in attendance.

The UConn Technology Incubation Program was established in 2004 to accelerate the growth of technology-based startups with a strong connection to the university.  Since then, TIP has grown from its roots in Storrs with space for five companies to a three campus operation able to support up to 60 companies.

This first Innovation & Investment Series event marks a renewed commitment by UConn to support the growth of promising ventures that come out of university labs, as well as external startups.

In addition to active networking, guests heard from Canaan Partners venture capitalists, Colleen Cuffaro and Peter Farina. Canaan Partners is a global, early stage venture capital firm with more than $4 billion in assets under management, and that has invested in some of the world’s leading technology and health care companies.

Cuffaro and Farina offered an inside look at what makes a biotech company attractive for investors. According to Cuffaro, the partners at Canaan “really need to swing for the fences” to get a sufficient return on their investment.

UConn’s executive director of venture development, Mostafa Analoui, explained why events like the TIP Innovation & Investment Series are critical for startups.

“Insight from active venture capitalists from firms like Canaan Partners can mean the difference between winning funding to propel a startup towards success or halting R&D because of insufficient financing,” Analoui said. “The university is committed to supporting events like these that can expedite investments and increase the chances of success for high-potential ventures throughout the state.”

The VCs from Canaan also critiqued pitches from several current TIP companies:

Bioarray Genetics is a molecular diagnostics company focused on changing the way that cancer patients are evaluated and treated with tests that predict patient response to cancer treatments.

Biorasis is a privately held company co-founded by two UConn professors who developed a wireless, needle-implantable biosensor platform for real time, continuous glucose monitoring.

CaroGen Corporation is an emerging vaccine company with a platform technology involving virus-like-vesicle (VLV)-based nanoparticle vaccines to address a broad range of infectious and chronic diseases, such as Hepatitis B, colon cancer and Zika.

The event was sponsored by Locke Lord, LLP and took place at the TIP incubator facility in Farmington at UConn Health. A $19 million addition was completed at this facility in January 2016 as a part of the state’s Bioscience CT initiative. TIP is currently home to 33 companies – the most in the program’s history. Companies in the program had a record year in 2016, with almost $40 million raised in debt and equity. This is $15.5 million more than the previous record set in 2014.

In addition to Canaan Partners, investors from Axiom Ventures, Connecticut Innovations, Elm Street Ventures, Horizon Technology Finance, Jefferson Investors, Pickwick Capital and Vital Venture Capital came to the event to learn about UConn venture opportunities.

For more information about the UConn Technology Incubation Program and to find out about future events, visit http://ip.uconn.edu/.

New UConn Butterfly Bushes Land on the Market

Published on UConn Today / May 11, 2017

Kim Colavito Markesich

Buddleia ‘Summer Skies’

With the arrival of the new growing season quickly approaching, plant enthusiasts may choose from several new butterfly bush (Buddleia) varieties for their gardening pleasure, thanks to the College’s plant breeding work headed by Mark Brand, professor of horticulture in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture.

During the summer of 2006, doctoral graduate student William Smith exposed Buddleia davidii seeds to ethylmethane sulfonate (EMS) in the hope of generating some novel traits in butterfly bush. EMS is a chemical that can be used to induce a higher rate of mutations in plants. When the treated seeds were grown in 2007, two were identified that Brand believed were important new plants.

The first plant was a variegated individual whose leaves had a yellow edge around a dark green center. Variegated plants are always popular because the foliage adds interest even when the plant is not in bloom, according to Brand. The foliage variegation pattern was very stable, which is not always the case with variegated plants, and light blue flowers were also produced during the summer. Spring Meadow Nursery in Michigan, a commercial grower, decided to license the new butterfly bush and include it in their Proven Winners® product line as “Summer Skies.” The plant was patented (USPP 22465) and also holds Canadian Plant Breeder Rights.

“Fortunately, 50 percent of the seedlings from the compact mutant plant retained the dwarf characteristic,” Brand notes. “We then selected out the plants with the best flower colors in each color group from hundreds of seedlings.” By 2010, Brand knew he had something special. He continued reproduction of the new plants using softwood stem cuttings, and since that time each plant has retained its unique features in successive generations. He filed for four patents in June of 2015.The second unique seedling was picked from the hundreds initially grown out from the EMS treatment was one with a unique growth form, low growing and compact, bearing thick stems, large leaves and a frosted appearance to the foliage. But the color of the flowers was lackluster. Brand wanted to retain the compact habit of the new seedling, but breed it to produce flowers that had stronger, more vivid colors. To do this, the compact butterfly bush was crossed with four standard-sized butterfly bushes that have vibrant flower colors.

“These new Buddleia are dramatically different in their appearance than anything else on the market,” Brand says.Brand sent the plants to Spring Meadow Nursery. The new butterfly bushes were first offered in 2016 exclusively at Walmart, as the Soda Pop series within the Better Homes and Garden line.

Unlike other dwarf plants, the UConn Soda Pop series have big leaves, big chunky stems and full-sized flowers on a plant that stays between three and four feet tall, even when left unpruned, says Brand. “That’s what makes them unique.”

The response to the new line was so positive that Spring Meadow bred the new cultivars with some deeper color plants to expand the line. These plants are part of their Proven Winners® line, under the Buddleia Pugster™ Series. “Our material was so impressive it led to an additional line of Buddleia touted as a major breakthrough in butterfly bushes,” Brand points out. “I expect there will be more future butterfly bush introductions that will trace their genetic roots back to the compact mutant that was produced in our breeding program.”

Royalty monies from plant cultivars help to fund continued research by students. So far, the royalty income has gone toward lab supplies and other necessities such as plant media, containers and fertilizer.

“I think the bulk of our royalty funding is yet to come,” Brand says. “We have quite a few cultivars out there including an ornamental switchgrass, several varieties of butterfly bush and some chokeberry. We also have a number of plants in trials with commercial growers and some, such as a compact form of purple-leaf sand cherry, and sterile barberries, are licensed and in the production pipeline.”Royalty monies from plant cultivars help to fund continued research by students. So far, the royalty income has gone toward lab supplies and other necessities such as plant media, containers and fertilizer.

This story was originally published in Naturally@UConn, a blog by the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources.

UConn Researchers Team with Pharma to Combat Superbugs

Published on UConn Innovation Portal / May 12, 2017


Photo: Dennis Wright, professor of pharmacaeutical science, at his lab (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Creating antibiotics that kill a potentially deadly staph infection known as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA, E. coli and other drug-resistant contagions known as “superbugs” is like trying to catch a ball rolling down an endless hill that keeps slipping out of reach.

Drug-resistant bacteria constantly morph and evolve, eluding efforts to kill them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention flagged them as an “urgent threat” because of their hard-to-kill nature and how easily they spread from person to person.

But after about a dozen years of persistence, a husband-and-wife team of medicinal chemists and their students at UConn’s School of Pharmacy have developed a group of experimental antibiotics that early tests suggest may be up to the job. Professors Dennis Wright and the late Amy Anderson found a weakness and exploited it in a way that may make the bacteria defenseless, they report in a recent issue of Cell Chemical Biology.

The researchers believe they have developed a drug that MRSA cannot evade and another antibiotic that proves effective against E. coli, which is even more challenging to fight. They tested hundreds of different compounds, altering each one’s chemical structure slightly with the hope of finding the weapon that would break through the drug-resistant bacteria’s defenses.

“I think the really exciting thing was being able to target these resistant forms of the bugs,” says Wright. With many other drugs, such as those that fight cardiovascular disease, “once you make it, that drug lasts forever. Because bacteria evolve, antibiotics lose function over time and work less and less as time goes on. You really have to stay one step ahead of them.”

Wright and Anderson had several candidates in the works when they asked colleagues at UConn Health and Hartford Hospital to collect antibiotic-resistant strains of MRSA as test cases. The local samples showed how fast antibiotic resistance is spreading. Two-thirds of the bacterial strains contained genes to resist common antibiotic treatments; these six strains had never been seen before in the U.S.

But the compounds forged by the Wright-Anderson team prevailed. They inhibited a particular enzyme in the bacteria so it couldn’t function or survive. Their goal is to create highly resilient antibiotics so that they can withstand mutations that lead to resistance.

Resiliency is crucial to combating the drug-resistant bacteria and to finding financial backers. Pharmaceutical companies may be more willing to invest in the development of an antibiotic if they know the drug will have staying power.

Wright’s lab has received more than $10 million in federal research support, including from the National Institutes of Health, to study these compounds.

Anderson’s and Wright’s discovery is licensed from UConn to a pharmaceutical company that was founded to develop novel antibiotics.

From a business perspective, pharmaceutical companies can’t make the kind of money on antibiotics that they can make on drugs for chronic illnesses such as high cholesterol or hypertension, since prescriptions are generally for 10 days and end. The research and development stage can take decades and cost millions before bringing an antibiotic to market. That’s why, Wright says, it’s so important for university researchers to work on creating antibiotics.

Wright’s lab is refining the antibiotics to improve their effectiveness and minimize side effects before the pharmaceutical company that holds the licensing agreement can apply to the Food and Drug Administration for clinical trials.

UConn Health Study: A Better View of How Tumors Form in the Eye

Published in UConn Today / May 10, 2017

Chris DeFrancesco

UConn Health's study will be Journal of Neuroscience Research cover story.

UConn Health’s study will be Journal of Neuroscience Research cover story.

The formation of tumors in the eye can cause blindness. But, for some reason our corneas, the transparent layer that forms the front of our eyes, have a natural ability to prevent it.

Researchers in the laboratory of UConn Health associate professor of neuroscience Royce Mohan believe they are closing in on an explanation for that. They detail their findings in what will be the cover article of September’s Journal of Neuroscience Research.

It has to do with a pair of catalytic enzymes called extracellular signal-regulated kinases 1 and 2 (ERK1/2) in the peripheral nervous system. When the ERK1/2 are over-activated in a specific type of cell known as Schwann cells, the “anti-cancer privilege of the cornea’s supportive tissue can be overcome,” says Mohan, who holds the John A. and Florence Mattern Solomon Endowed Chair in Vision Sciences and Eye Diseases at UConn Health.

Mohan’s research group, led by Paola Bargagna-Mohan, assistant professor of neuroscience, has now established a link between overactive ERK1/2 and corneal fibrosis, the thickening and scarring of connective tissue.

Eye anatomy, computer artwork.
Eye anatomy, computer artwork.

The cornea’s natural resistance to tumors can fail during the course of neurofibromatsosis-1, a rare disease caused by disruptions in a gene that acts as tumor suppressor protein. When neurofibromatsosis-1 occurs, patients develop an enlargement of corneal nerves, and sometimes, corneal tumors. Increased ERK1/2 activity is associated with both.

“These findings from Royce Mohan and colleagues may inform research toward developing better strategies for the prevention of corneal neurofibromas in people,” says Dr. George McKie, director of the cornea program at the National Eye Institute, which funded the study.

The study was done in collaboration with Rashmi Bansal, professor of neuroscience, and research associate Akihiro Ishii. Their investigation, funded by the Jacob Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, was primarily to look at the important role of ERK1/2 for making myelin, a substance that forms an insulating layer in nerve cells that is essential to the nervous system’s proper function, including the transmission of pain sensations.

“Interestingly, ERK activation in corneal Schwann cells initiated their transformation into a fibrosis-driving function much before tumors actually developed,” Mohan says. “Because this essentially is a slow-growing tumor, there could be therapeutic opportunity to block the ERK1/2 protein disease axis with inhibitory drugs in the future.”

“Now, it is the other half of the inquiry that remains—how corneas restrict ERK1/2 from becoming chronically active—that may help answer how the cornea stays free from tumors for life,” he says.

UConn Doc’s Vaccine Aims to Fight Ovarian Cancer

Published by Hartford Business Journal / May 8, 2017

John Stearns

UConn Health’s Dr. Pramod Srivastava has opened a clinical trial for a personalized vaccine against ovarian cancer that he hopes proves its safety and effectiveness, sets the stage for commercial development and lays the groundwork for treating other cancers.

Ovarian cancer, for which there’s no screening test, afflicts about 20,000 women in the U.S. each year and often doesn’t present clear symptoms until reaching advanced, stage 3 or 4 levels. After surgery and chemotherapy, the cancer recurs in about 90 percent of patients within a couple years. Of those, most die.

“The idea is to give [patients] the vaccine after they’ve had their surgery and chemotherapy and see if we can prolong the time to recurrence or cure them altogether,” said Srivastava, 61, director of the Carole and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center and Center for Immunotherapy of Cancer and Infectious Diseases at UConn Health, where he’s worked since 1997.

Because ovarian cancer tends to recur predictably within a period of time, doctors can gauge the vaccine’s effectiveness in fending off the disease, said Dr. Susan Tannenbaum, chief of the Division of Hematology & Oncology at the Neag cancer center, who will lead the clinical trial.

Srivastava’s personalized immunotherapy technology uses genomic analysis, which studies an individual’s unique DNA, to identify differences between a woman’s healthy and cancerous tissue. A vaccine is then created to boost the patient’s immune system and target the cancerous cells.

For a woman whose immune system is fighting, the vaccine aims to make it fight better; for a woman whose immune system isn’t fighting, the vaccine will make it fight, Srivastava said.

“We make the vaccine based on each patient’s tumor and immune composition. It’s made for that woman from that woman’s tumor information,” Srivastava said.

The clinical trial is the world’s first for a personalized ovarian cancer vaccine, according to Srivastava.

Advancements in genomic and computer analysis have made such targeted medicine possible, Srivastava said, noting each person has a genomic book in their body of six billion characters.

“So we take those six billion characters, the normal and the [tumor-inflicted ones], and we compare them and we say, ‘ah, these are the ones’ ” that are most useful in helping determine which cells to target with the vaccine, he said.

Srivastava and his team create the individualized vaccine using samples of a patient’s own DNA from both unhealthy cancer cells and healthy blood cells.

Scientists then sequence and cross-reference the entire DNA from both sources to pinpoint the most important genetic differences and then design the personalized vaccine — with the help of bioinformatics scientists, led by Ion Mandoiu of UConn’s School of Computer Sciences and Engineering — to target specific genetic mutations of patients’ cancerous cells, according to UConn Health.

Clinical trial

Successful tests in mice preceded U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for human testing.

UConn is recruiting 15 women for the phase one trial — set to begin this month — who have their first diagnosis of ovarian cancer or first recurrence. Once a patient meets eligibility requirements, she’d have surgery to remove the tumor, followed by chemotherapy. During that roughly three- to four-month treatment, the key genetic mutations would be identified and the vaccine would be formulated.

After chemo recovery, the first patient would be vaccinated once a month, starting about Aug. 1, for six months, with blood drawn monthly to determine immune response. Future patients would follow the same routine, with the goal of adding about one patient a month to the trial over about 15 months.

“First thing we want to see is that it is safe,” Srivastava said of the trial, then see if it’s feasible, if there’s an immune response or not and how long it takes for recurrence.

Assuming positive results, Srivastava would seek approval for a larger, randomized clinical trial that could take about four years and hopefully demonstrate effectiveness for approval to go to market.

The market potential is significant.

“My thought would be that the market penetration for something like this would be pretty high because there’s huge demand and there’s not much else available right now,” Srivastava said.

Assuming 20,000 new ovarian cancer cases a year with 15,000 of those in advanced stage, and conservatively assuming 20 percent market penetration, that’s 3,000 treatments. Conservatively estimating $100,000 per treatment, that’s $300 million.

“This by itself would be a huge business opportunity,” including for UConn and the state, he said.

The opportunity soars if the technology proves successful in trials against other cancers.

“In principle, this will apply to the big cancers — like breast, prostate, lung, colon, stomach — and so this trial is important not only for the market side of [ovarian cancer], but other much, much bigger [cancers],” Srivastava said.

He’s talking with two potential investors about forming a company, in part, to raise capital for continuing R&D work.

Money raised so far includes $3 million from the Neags, $500,000 from Connecticut Innovations (CI) — the state’s quasi-public venture arm — and about $200,000 from the Connecticut Institute for Clinical and Translational Science at UConn (CICATS).

CI committed funding last July. Half has been granted, with the balance contingent upon Srivastava reaching certain targets.

Successful technologies can generate licensing revenues for UConn and CI, which CI can reinvest in other research and companies. Companies located in-state also produce direct economic impact.

“Selfishly, we would like a Connecticut-based company to, if successful, get a chance to grow and develop the technology further in the state where CI can invest,” said Dan Wagner, CI’s managing director.

Assuming the technology translates across multiple cancers, “the market starts to open more and more,” Wagner said.

Tannenbaum, who will supervise the trial’s clinical aspect, said Srivastava is doing personalized immunotherapy in a new way, with technology that hasn’t been utilized before in vaccine development. There are vaccines for different cancers in clinical trials, but the way they were engineered is different, she said.

“I think he’s got just the kind of background and the kind of personality to potentially drive this to a place where it could actually work,” Tannenbaum said. “Immunology, in my opinion, is really where cancer care is going and it’s a privilege to work with him. If this works, it’s all because of him.”

Entrepreneurial roots

Srivastava is an experienced entrepreneur in cancer immunotherapy products. He co-founded and took public Agenus Inc., which makes cancer vaccines, and helped start Ikonisys, which does cancer detection, and Life Science Pharmaceuticals, which makes antibodies to cancer.

Dr. Cato Laurencin, CEO of CICATS and Van Dusen distinguished endowed chair and professor of orthopedic surgery in the UConn School of Medicine, said Srivastava’s work is “absolutely brilliant” and called the doctor one of the pioneers of cancer immune therapy.

His novel vaccine for women with advanced ovarian cancer takes personalized medicine to the next level, Laurencin said.

“Dr. Srivastava is a very modest man,” he said. His studies are “absolutely incredible and have an incredible potential to move things forward and bring it all forward.”

UConn TIP Medical Startup Targets Hearing Loss With New Drugs

Published in the Hartford Courant / May 7, 2017

Stephen Singer

Researchers have established a startup business that could restore hearing that people have lost to construction, traffic, jet planes and even rock concerts.

Frequency Therapeutics, based in Farmington and Woburn, Mass., is developing drugs that would activate certain cells, stimulating the regrowth of hair cells in the inner ear to counter “chronic noise-induced hearing loss.”

“The evolution of our hearing was not meant to hang out on subway platforms or put on earbuds or go to U2 concerts,” said David Lucchino, chief executive officer of Frequency Therapeutics. “There’s a disconnect between the evolution of hearing and the industrialized world we live in.”

The company is part of the University of Connecticut’s business incubation program, which aims to provide support to new business startups, and has received $32 million in financing. It is researching technology to develop a gel that would be injected in the middle ear — between the eardrum and oval window — in a doctor’s office procedure of about 30 minutes.

The intent is to recreate sensory hair cells — as many as 15,000 in each ear — that act as antenna in converting sound into signals understood by the brain. Or as Lucchino says, how to “biologically hot-wire the inner ear” to help it regenerate itself.

The human ear is incapable of spontaneously restoring lost or damaged hair cells, making hearing loss permanent.

Jeff Karp, who co-founded Frequency Therapeutics in 2015, said “druggable tissue regeneration” has a broad platform, with hearing loss a first application.

Activating the body’s progenitor cells — known as descendants of stem cells that can form one or more kinds of cells in regenerating tissue — also could be applied to treating skin disorders or reversing vision problems. By activating the progenitor cells, Frequency Therapeutics can prod disease modification without the complexity of genetic engineering.

Lucchino said researchers looking to establish companies that will draw investment money consider ways to have the “biggest impact helping people.” Finding a successful treatment for hearing loss would benefit a large market: About 36 million people in the U.S. are affected, researchers say.

The World Health Organization estimates that 1.1 billion young people are at risk for hearing loss from recreational noise. About 360 million people worldwide, or 5 percent of the global population, have disabling hearing loss. Of that, 32 million are children.

Hearing loss caused by prolonged exposure to excessive noise can be due to heavy construction or military training, but common loud noises like subways, concerts and the use of headphones can have a significant impact on hearing.

Genetic causes, complications at birth, certain infectious diseases, chronic ear infections, the use of particular drugs, exposure to excessive noise and aging also are blamed for hearing loss, according to the World Health Organization

The next step for Frequency Therapeutics is for researchers to move their work to the clinic, expected in the next year to 18 months, and “show this drug actually works,” Lucchino said.

UConn TIP startup Azitra closes $2.9M Series A for microbiome work

Published on Fierce Biotech / April 5, 2017

Ben Adams

Azitra has also received funding from the NIH and Peter Thiel’s Breakout Labs.

Preclinical company Azitra has raised a small bag of cash in its Series A round as it looks to further its work using the skin’s own microbiome for new treatments in dermatology and skin infections.

The three-year-old Farmington, Connecticut-based biotech today closed a $2.9 million venture round led by Bios Partners, which brings its total amount of outside funding to $3.75 million.

Previous seed funding sources include Peter Thiel’s Breakout Labs program that supports startups, alongside other nondilutive grants, including from the National Institutes of Health.

Azitra’s lead candidate, AZT-01, is a recombinant strain of a safe skin bacterium that secretes therapeutic proteins locally into the skin.

The big idea is that these bacteria, when applied topically on the skin, can colonize the skin and restore the microbiome, all the while treating the skin condition with therapeutic proteins.

Azitra says that the funding will allow it to push on with work for its platform across a variety of skin conditions, including eczema, atopic dermatitis, MRSA, rare genetic skin diseases and cosmetic applications.

“The current approach of only addressing a disease’s symptoms alone is ineffective, and the microbiome is a nascent area of ground-breaking science that has enormous potential,” said Azitra co-founder Travis Whitfill.

“That’s why we were passionate about launching a commercial organization that harnesses the power of the skin’s own microbiome to develop a new kind of dermatology treatment. Such treatments are potentially safer, more highly targeted, and work better with fewer side effects than what’s currently available for often intractable conditions.”

The closing of its Series A comes on the same day that another microbiome biotech, Finch Therapeutics, penned a new deal with Takeda for research on FIN-524, a microbial cocktail for inflammatory bowel disease.