Science Updates

Sapience Therapeutics: Ticking the biological boxes

In April 2015, Barry Kappel left his job at a small anti-infectives firm, dug into the scientific literature and crossed his fingers. Kappel, who has a PhD in immunology and pharmacology from Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, had long wanted to launch a biotechnology firm of his own. With enough savings to buy him 18 months, and 6 years of experience in business development, the time was ripe.

Over the next few months, Kappel read up on more than 100 research projects. A few dozen piqued his interest. He flew to Israel to check out some compelling drug candidates and cold-called potential partners from New York to California. By August, he had found what he was looking for just eight kilometres from his home — in the technology-transfer office at Columbia University in New York City.

“My mission was threefold,” Kappel says. “I wanted a protein-based therapeutic that was 18–24 months from an investigational new drug filing with the US Food and Drug Administration and that would address a serious unmet need.” The drug that ticked all three boxes was created by cell biologists Lloyd Greene, at Columbia, and James Angelastro, now at the University of California, Davis. The peptide-based therapeutic, which Kappel calls ST-36, kills cancer cells by inhibiting the transcription factor ATF5. If the drug makes it to the clinic, it will be transformative for people with glioblastoma — a brain cancer that kills up to 97%of patients within three years. ST-36 might also prove useful for other hard-to-treat cancers such as pancreatic and certain breast tumours.

Kappel founded Sapience Therapeutics in October 2015, and set out to raise money to optimize the drug candidate and validate the science behind it. Biotech founders often spend many gruelling months pitching their companies at roadshows in an effort to drum up interest from venture capitalists and institutional investors, but Kappel took a different approach for the bulk of his backing. He had the Merchant Capital division of the investment bank Maxim Group prepare a 120-page memorandum that summarized Sapience's business case and risks. The bank then sent this out to its clients. Investors used the report to decide whether they were interested. “I saved an unbelievable amount of time,” says Kappel. This unconventional strategy was only possible because he had worked with the investment bank on a previous project, Kappel adds.

By July 2016, Sapience had raised US$22.5 million from investors.

One of the key backers of Sapience is the global biopharmaceutical company Celgene, which has an established cancer-drug pipeline. Columbia University's technology-transfer team had introduced Celgene to the drug candidate at the same time that Kappel was vetting the science. The company was interested in the protein's potential, but ultimately decided to reduce its exposure by backing Sapience to develop the therapeutic.

Kappel was more than willing to take on the series of uphill battles that start-ups must regularly endure. Drug researchers often categorize transcription factors as 'undruggable' targets. Inhibitors of these proteins have to reach the right cells in the right organs, and then penetrate the nucleus, where transcription factors help to convert DNA to RNA. These high barriers to entry limit the types of candidates that can be developed as therapeutics. And because transcription factors don't tend to have druggable pockets — sites that can be plugged up with small molecules — drug developers also have to work out how to block the notoriously intractable protein–protein and protein–nucleic-acid interactions that enable translation. “The soil has been salted by people who have failed,” says John Lazo, a pharmacologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, who was not involved with discovery of ST-36.

Rather than relying on a small molecule to block the activity of ATF5, Drs Angelastro and Greene developed a non-functional version of ATF5 that binds to, and ties up, the cellular machinery of DNA transcription. They also tagged this biologic with a cell-penetrating peptide to smuggle it through the blood–brain barrier, into cancer cells and across the nuclear membrane. When they tested their candidate in mice, the gliomas were reduced or eradicated in all of the animals treated, and did not return in 12 months (C. C. Cates et alOncotarget 7, 12718–12730; 2016).

“If this particular approach is as effective as the preclinical data suggest, then you could see a lot of other people saying maybe we should adopt the same strategy,” says Lazo.

But that's a big 'if', he adds. Sapience will need to ensure that the drug is safe in toxicology studies. And the compound will need to be optimized to maximize efficacy, minimize side effects and make it easier to manufacture — a costly process for biological drugs. Nevertheless, Kappel hopes to file for regulatory approval to start clinical trials by the end of 2018.

This is why Angelastro's glad that the drug candidate is now in the hands of a start-up. “I had no idea that this project would go this far,” he says, adding that his interest lies in formulating new hypotheses, rather than in toxicity screening and troubleshooting manufacturing processes.

“Sapience knows what they are doing,” says Angelastro. “This way I can just focus on coming up with new ideas.”

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AAVMC News – April 2017

Biomedical Startup Raises $1 Million toward Revolutionizing Anesthesia

As UC Davis professor and veterinarian Robert Brosnan headed toward the campus conference center one evening four years ago, he had one thing on his mind: knocking people out—both literally and figuratively.

Over the next several days at the Child Family Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship’s Biomedical Engineering Entrepreneurship Academy, Brosnan finally found an audience that understood the wow factor of his research, and could help him with the network, advice and connections to bring his passion and patent-pending technology to life.

Brosnan, an expert in veterinary anesthesia in the Department of Surgical and Radiological Sciences at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, has developed patent-pending technology that has identified agents in several novel classes that could lead to better, safer, and more cost-effective general anesthetics for use in operating rooms and surgical centers. His research focuses on cardiovascular and respiratory effects of anesthetics and on the mechanisms of anesthetic action.

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Companion Animals - Translational Scientist's New Best Friends

Knowledge and resources derived from veterinary medicine represent an underused
resource that could serve as a bridge between data obtained from diseases models in
laboratory animals and human clinical trials. Naturally occurring disease in companion
animals that display the defining attributes of similar, if not identical, diseases in
humans hold promise for providing predictive proof of concept in the evaluation of new
therapeutics and devices. Here we outline comparative aspects of naturally occurring
diseases in companion animals and discuss their current uses in translational medicine,
benefits, and shortcomings. Last, we envision how these natural models of disease might
ultimately decrease the failure rate in human clinical trials and accelerate the delivery of
effective treatments to the human clinical market.

The authors are Amir Kol, Boaz Arzi, Kyriacos Athanasiou, Diana Farmer, Jan Nolta, Robert Rebhun, Xinbin Chen, Leigh Griffiths, Frank Verstraete, Christopher Murphy, and Dori Borjesson.

Published in Science - Translational Medicine, October 2015.

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Public Universities & Veterinary Medical Colleges Groups Announce Creation of Task Force on Antibiotic Resistance in Production Agriculture

Washington, DC – The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) and the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC) today announced the creation of the Task Force on Antibiotic Resistance in Production Agriculture.

The task force is comprised of representatives from U.S. agriculture colleges/land grant universities and veterinary colleges as well as key representatives from the production animal agriculture community and the pharmaceutical industry. The goal of the task force is to help advise the federal government on a research agenda and also help publicly disseminate information on the use of antibiotics in production agriculture. Officials from key federal agencies are expected to serve as observers to the task force and leaders from public universities in Mexico and Canada will serve as ex officio members.

Scientists and the public have grown increasingly concerned about the evolution of antibiotic resistant bacteria in veterinary and human medicine. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have expressed serious concerns as well. Some bacteria have developed defenses against different classes of antibiotic compounds.

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UC Davis Researchers Take an In-depth Look at the Temporomandibular Joint of the Harbor Porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) and Risso's Dolphin (Grampus griseus)

A new paper just published in the journal Archives of Oral Biology used tridimensional reconstruction of computed tomography images of the skull of a Risso’s dolphin (Grampus griseus), lateral view. Computed tomography was used to aid in the understanding of the spatial location of the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) of harbor porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) and Risso's dolphin (Grampus griseus). In this study, a comprehensive characterization of the TMJ has yielded novel findings that illuminate the structure – function relationship of the TMJ of these two types of dolphins.

The lead authors are Ms Maayan McDonald (a STAR fellow) and Professor Boaz Arzi. Co-authors contributing to the research include Dr. Frank Verstraete, Dr. Vapniarsky-Arzi, Dr. C. Staszyk, Dr. Kevin Woolard, and Mr. Dustin Leale.

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The Raccoon Polyomavirus Genome and Tumor Antigen Transcription are Stable and Abundant in Neuroglial Tumors

Drs. Pesavento and Woolard and their students recently published an important paper in the Journal of Virology showing that raccoon Polyomavirus is present in neurological tumors. The study highlights several ways in which SVM faculty are collaborating on research that makes timely discoveries about important health issues involving viral transmission of disease. The study also underscores the key role contributed by graduate students and undergraduate students in the research performed in the SVM. 

Key Findings: The natural lifecycle of the Polyomaviruses (PyVs) that infect humans and other animals is to persist without causing disease, however certain PyVs can cause cancer in humans or in other animals. The oncogenic potential of polyomavirus is primarily evaluated in laboratory animal models because naturally occurring viral associated tumors are unpredictable. The Pesavento laboratory discovered raccoon polyomavirus (RacPyV), which is 100% associated with neuroglial tumors of free-ranging raccoons in the Western United States. While this virus-brain tumor association is, to date, intractably linked, a robust collection of scientific evidence is needed to support the classification of RacPyV as a causative agent in raccoon neuroglial tumors. In this paper, the researchers demonstrate that the RacPyV genome and transcription of the virally encoded oncogenic T-antigen are abundant in primary tumors, metastasis, xenotransplants, and cultured primary tumor cells. Throughout all of these manipulations, RacPyV was found to be stable as an episome (non-integrated) which demonstrates a minimal criterion for causation and a novel mechanism of polyomavirus associated oncogenesis.

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STAR Project Leads To Discovery Of Bartonella Infection in Coyote Heart Valves

Bartonella are blood-borne bacteria infecting a wide variety of domestic and wild animal species. One species, Bartonella vinsonii subsp. berkhoffii (B. v. berkhoffii), is known to cause severe cardiac disease by destroying the cardiac valves (endocarditis) in domestic dogs and humans. Coyotes are the main reservoir for B. v. berkhoffii, but it was not known if infected coyotes developed endocarditis like their domestic counterparts.

Therefore, Spencer Kehoe (DVM Class 2015) and his STAR mentor Dr. Bruno Chomel (Department of Population Health and Reproduction) hypothesized that coyotes serve as a naturally-occurring epidemiological and physiological sentinel models to study infection kinetics and pathology caused by this bacterium in reservoir (coyotes) and accidental hosts (humans/ dogs).

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New Study From SVM Researchers Identifies Neurotoxic Potential of Harmful Algal Blooms

While hepatotoxicity following acute exposure to toxins produced by algal called microcystins is well documented, neurotoxicity after sub-lethal exposure is poorly understood. Caroline (Carly) Moore, a VSTP PhD/DVM student working with Dr. Birgit Puschner, has developed a novel statistical approach to analyze neurotoxic effects in a convenient model organism, the adult nematode (Caenorhabditis elegans).  Alga known as Cyanobacteria are some of the oldest and simplest organisms still inhabiting fresh, brackish and marine waters.  While some algal blooms are harmless, others have the potential to produce various toxins, with the first documented case of cyanobacteria poisoning described in 1878.  Algal toxins known to be very resistant to degradation are called microcystins.  At high doses, microcystins are acutely hepatotoxic. Microcystins have resulted in illness in humans and death in wildlife, livestock, dogs and humans for many years.  Surprisingly, there are no federal regulations to test for microcystins in recreational or drinking water, fish and seafood, or blue-green algal supplements such as spirulina (a component of many commercially available superfood green drinks).  In fact, when samples of blue-green algal supplement tablets were tested for microcystins, 85 out of 87 samples (98%) had detectable levels of microcystins.  This raises concerns whether non-lethal exposure to microcystins can cause toxicity.  Recent studies have linked chronic exposure to microcystins to liver and colorectal cancer in humans.  Microcystins may also cause neurotoxicity as patients exposed to microcystin-contaminated water during dialysis treatment experienced neurological symptoms. The research featured here set out to establish the alternative model Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans) as a robust platform to study microcystin’s potential to cause neurotoxicity.  C. elegans are remarkable 1 mm clear worms, which have predictable behaviors associated with specific neurons.  Due to their ease of care (they eat non-pathogenic E. coli and can be stored on the bench or at -80 degrees), thoroughly understood genetics (the whole genome and 302 neurons are mapped), and short lifespan (about two weeks), the C. elegans model has many advantages over traditional in vivo models.  With many conserved biological functions between humans and C. elegans, we were able to use the established C. elegans neurotoxicity model in the investigation of the potential of non-lethal levels of microcystins to cause neurotoxicity.

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American Society of Microbiology (ASM) Responds to CDC Anthrax Exposure

The recent events at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which are documented in the report below, reveal significant lapses in biosafety, biosecurity, oversight and compliance with the Select Agents and Toxins regulations.  At every level, in teaching, research, and diagnostic laboratories, microbiologists must take all steps possible to guarantee biosafety, to protect themselves, their co-workers, and the broader public from microorganisms that can cause disease.  Microbiologists who work with dangerous pathogens have a responsibility to understand and comply with biosafety and biosecurity regulations.  As such, ASM members must ensure that they are acting with the highest level of responsibility and accountability in their laboratories.

 Microbiologists engage in activities that are essential to detect, respond to and prevent infectious diseases. This work must be conducted as safely as possible. Toward that end, we urge microbiologists to review their laboratory procedures and to ensure that they are compliant with biosafety regulations and best practices. Microbiologists and institutions should regularly inventory all areas of storage to maintain an accurate and up-to-date inventory of materials to be certain there are no unaccounted for infectious agents and toxins.  Identified lapses in biosafety and biosecurity must be reported promptly to the appropriate institutional authorities. Public health and safety are of the utmost importance and we have a professional responsibility to maintain the public trust.  

Please follow the link to read the CDC’s July 11 Report on the Potential Exposure to Anthrax.


Seeing the Forest for the Trees: How “One Health” Connects Humans, Animals, and Ecosystems

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UC Davis veterinarians mentioned in Futurist article on Expanding Pet Longevity

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Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws

Bruce Alberts, Marc Kirschner, Shirley Tilghman, and Harold Varmus describe specific ways for "rescuing U.S. biomedical research from its systematic flaws" in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. They write, "The long-held but erroneous assumption of never-ending rapid growth in biomedical science has created an unsustainable hypercompetitive system that is discouraging even the most outstanding prospective students from entering our profession-and making it difficult for seasoned investigators to produce their best work. This is a recipe for long-term decline, and the problems cannot be solved with simplistic approaches." The authors suggest reforms on the funding of graduate students, postdoc compensation, and peer review. They also would reconsider rules on indirect facilities cost reimbursement and salary support on research project grants.

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