Beyond the lab
How early-stage academic research becomes a commercialized treatment available to patients
You could say that the story of Novare Pharmaceuticals begins with a discovery Dr. Eva Turley made during her postdoctoral training.
She found a protein called RHAMM (Recepter for Hyaluronan-Mediated Motility), a breakthrough that would open up a whole new area of research.
This protein plays an important role in regulating spontaneous cell movement and stem cell differentiation. Dr. Turley and her colleagues learned that manipulating RHAMM would allow them to selectively stimulate subcutaneous fat, moderate destructive inflammation and reduce fibrosis, which causes scarring.
This ability could be used to treat inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, and fibrotic diseases like pulmonary fibrosis, which causes lung scarring and interferes with breathing.
It could also promote scarless healing for burns and post-surgical wounds, and reduce or eliminate excess scarring.
With further applications, it would be possible to regenerate and reconstruct women’s breasts after mastectomy, and treat breast and prostate cancer.
How RHAMM-based therapeutics can treat lung fibrosis
Lung fibrosis starts out as inflammation. Hyaluronan, the sugar that binds to RHAMM, is important in this process.
Hyaluronan is everywhere in our bodies and performs protective functions, but when it is fragmented it initiates inflammation.
When someone gets a tissue injury, oxygen free radicals and enzymes are released, breaking down hyaluronan into smaller fragments that bind to RHAMM and initiate inflammation.
In lungs, however, only a small fraction of hyaluronan is broken down into fragments, so peptides that mimic RHAMM are able to bind to them, thus preventing their binding to RHAMM and initiating inflammation. This prevents out of control inflammation and blunts fibrosis.
Allied Minds – an American company that forms, funds, manages and builds startups based on early-stage technologies from research institutions – became interested in Dr. Turley’s work. Together they created Novare Pharmaceuticals to develop RHAMM-based therapeutics and are currently working on treatments for lung fibrosis.
In 2015, Novare entered into a Master Research Collaboration Agreement with Lawson, making London a discovery and validation incubator for the company. The relationship is managed by WORLDiscoveries®, Lawson’s business development arm. The agreement combines Novare’s business acumen with Lawson’s expertise in translational science and specialized facilities.
The partnership was attractive because Dr. Turley’s RHAMM research was already being conducted at London Health Sciences Centre’s London Regional Cancer Program (LRCP). Novare was also interested in Dr. Len Luyt’s work in peptide chemistry at LRCP.
Before Dr. Turley began collaborating with Dr. Luyt, there were limited molecules known to interfere with RHAMM. They’ve now found a number of ways to block RHAMM by building peptide-based molecules.
Dr. Luyt creates the novel peptides, which Dr. Turley then screens in her lab for therapeutic potential. Drug candidates are sent for testing.
Getting to this point wasn’t easy. Developing a drug is a long process with many challenges. Dr. Turley worked with numerous companies before finding the right fit with Allied Minds.
“It depends on so many different factors,” says Dr. Turley. “A company can change its research focus based on a business decision or they might not want to wait for early-stage research to be developed into a commercial product. You could also be competing with in-house researchers.”
“The biggest barrier is being considered a risky investment. You need enough promising data to get buy-in from a commercial partner. That can be difficult depending on available funding.”
WORLDiscoveries® is the business development arm of London’s extensive research network, created through a partnership between Lawson Health Research Institute, Robarts Research Institute and Western University. With their industry connections, sector-specific market knowledge, and business development expertise, the WORLDiscoveries® team helps researchers and local inventors commercialize their discoveries through licensing and new company spin-offs.
“The WORLDiscoveries® staff has a lot of knowledge about the industry and is experienced in dealing with material transfer, confidentiality and licensing agreements. Our time isn’t taken up by that so we can focus on the research instead,” says
Dr. Eva Turley.
The fact that Drs. Turley and Luyt are able to develop commercial applications for their academic research demonstrates the strength of their work, and the success of their partnership with Novare and collaboration with Lawson.
“Sometimes companies can be focused solely on milestones and deliverables to get a particular job done,” explains Dr. Luyt. “But Novare has offered quite a bit of freedom for discovery and in the end, I think you have a better chance of getting a drug candidate that way.”
The relationship has created seven new jobs in London, funded new equipment and attracted research investment.
Both researchers are excited by the prospect of their work eventually leading to a drug that can treat patients. Dr. Turley feels, “it would be really gratifying to translate what I’ve worked so hard on and pioneered into something clinically useful.”
“For a chemist, there’s something very exciting about seeing molecules you’ve created be used to help people,” says Dr. Luyt. “That’s the greatest achievement possible.”
Dr. Eva Turley is a part of the Cancer research program at Lawson and is a Professor in the Departments of Oncology, Biochemistry and Surgery, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry at Western University. Dr. Len Luyt is a part of the Cancer research program at Lawson and is an Associate Professor in the Department of Oncology, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, and the Department of Chemistry, Faculty of Science at Western University.