COVID-19 Vaccine With Patch Delivery Technology Enters Preclinical Testing at UC Davis
Sierra Biopharma is Developing Antigen-Specific Therapy Targeting Autoimmune Diseases
Sierra Biopharma, a biotechnology startup founded on intellectual property developed by researchers at the University of California, Davis, is developing a new therapeutic approach to treat autoimmune diseases.
Inventors and co-founders Robert Fairclough and Vu Trinh have set an initial focus on treating myasthenia gravis, a chronic autoimmune disease that affects 1.4 million people globally. Myasthenia gravis causes use-induced muscle fatigue and generalized muscle weakness that can result in life-altering difficulties with seeing, swallowing, talking and walking. The disease stems from a mistake made by the immune system in producing antibodies that bind to neurotransmitter receptors, triggering the immune system to destroy the folded post-synaptic muscle fiber membranes that are vital for repeated muscle contractions.
Sierra Biopharma is taking a new approach to treat the disease with an antigen-specific therapy that attacks the cause of the disease without suppressing the entire immune system. To accomplish this, the company is developing a biologic compound that not only binds to, neutralizes and clears the pathogenic antibodies, but also binds to and eliminates the memory B-cells responsible for producing more of the pathogenic antibodies.
Fairclough and Trinh recently completed the Biotech Innovation Gallery (BIG) Accelerator program led by UC Davis Venture Catalyst. The program provides leaders of UC Davis-associated biotech startups with training on how to develop an effective business model, strategies to protect intellectual property and guidance on how to pitch to potential strategic partners and investors.. The year’s program concluded with a showcase event where 22 startups, including Sierra Biopharma, pitched their value proposition to venture capitalists and biotech companies attending the annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco.
“It was amazing to be surrounded by so many fantastic biotech startups from UC Davis,” said Fairclough, an emeritus associate professor in the UC Davis Department of Neurology. “We were able to pitch our research to so many VCs and companies and they provided us with great insight and guidance in how best to proceed with the company’s development.”
Sierra Biopharma is now scaling up production of the therapeutic biologic and plans to complete the proof of concept and preclinical work in the next six months. The company has accepted an invitation to participate in the 2020 Science2Startup showcase event — a forum for top scientists from around the world to present their ideas and interact with leading investors and executives in the Boston biotechnology hub.
Developing Novel Treatments for Depression and Related Disorders
Delix Therapeutics, founded by David Olson, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine, is investigating whether neural plasticity–promoting drugs can lead to new treatments for depression, anxiety and related disorders.
Atrophy of neurons in the prefrontal cortex of the brain is known to play a key role in depression and related diseases. The known antidepressant properties of ketamine, a dissociative anesthetic, may stem from its ability to promote neural plasticity–enabling neurons in the prefrontal cortex to rewire their connections.
In 2018, Olson and his team demonstrated that a wide range of psychedelic drugs, including well-known compounds such as LSD and MDMA (commonly called Ecstasy), increase the number of neuronal branches, the density of small protrusions on these branches (dendritic spines) and the number of connections between neurons. Rats treated with a single dose of DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine), a psychedelic compound found in Amazonian herbal tea known as ayahuasca, showed an increase in the number of dendritic spines, similar to that seen with ketamine treatment. Their work was published in the journal Cell Reports.
While drawbacks of using compounds such as LSD and MDMA as therapeutics include their hallucinogenic and psychostimulant effects, in a significant development Olson and his team discovered how to decouple the beneficial effects of neuroplasticity-promoting compounds from the unwanted hallucinogenic side effects.
This discovery could potentially open doors for the development of novel drugs to treat mood and anxiety disorders. Olson and his team have proposed the term psychoplastogen to describe this new class of “plasticity-promoting” compounds.
The company is investigating several distinct novel chemical scaffolds and molecules capable of promoting plasticity in order to develop safer and more effective alternatives to treat depression and related disorders.
Investigating a Better Therapeutic for Epilepsy
Syncanica Bio, a startup founded by Professor Mark Mascal with support from Ph.D. graduate Fei Chang, is investigating a synthetic cannabidiol (CBD) analogue as a novel therapeutic compound for conditions including anxiety, glaucoma and epilepsy.
Products containing CBD derived from cannabis or hemp plants have become popular for their potential health effects in part because CBD is less intoxicating than tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the major psychoactive component found in marijuana.
Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2018 approved an oral CBD formulation for the treatment of some seizure conditions, CBD from extracts of cannabis or hemp poses legal problems in some states, as well as under federal law.
Mascal has developed an inexpensive synthetic alternative to CBD known as H2CBD—a molecule with a similar structure but made using commercially available compounds instead of extracts from hemp or cannabis.
H2CBD is non-intoxicating and easier to purify than the plant extract. It also eliminates the need to use agricultural land and irrigation for hemp or cannabis cultivation, avoids possible pesticide contamination and could circumvent the legal complications involved with cannabis-related extracts. Most importantly, unlike CBD, H2CBD cannot be converted to THC, eliminating the potential for abuse.
H2CBD was compared against herbal CBD in rats with induced seizures. H2CBD and CBD were found to be equally effective for the reduction of both the frequency and severity of the seizures. The work was published May 23, 2019, in the journal Scientific Reports.
Mascal is currently working with colleagues at the UC Davis School of Medicine to carry out additional studies in animals with the goal of moving into human clinical trials. UC Davis has applied for a provisional patent on anti-seizure use of H2CBD and its analogues.
Developing New Tools To Improve Food Production and Safety
The agriculture sector is facing an enormous task—to increase food production to support the planet’s explosive population growth. At the same time, the industry must address a growing number of food safety challenges associated with pathogenic bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli. These challenges are driving the need for and adoption of innovative solutions at the farm level, including remote sensing and robotics. However, utilizing these new technologies effectively requires the ability to clearly interpret and analyze the vast quantities of data being collected, which comes with its own set of challenges.
AgriNerds, one of 14 startups enabled in FY 2018–19 by technology developed at UC Davis, is helping farmers harness the power of these technologies by providing a data management and visualization tool to integrate and interpret this information in real time. Their Web-based application uses both machine learning and decision sciences to help farmers optimize production yield, food safety and operational efficiency.
The technology is based on the work of Maurice Pitesky from the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine-Cooperative Extension and former students Roberto Carrasco, Joseph Gendreau and Tristan Bond.
The team received proof-of-concept funding from the UC Davis Data, Informatics and Application Launch (DIAL™) Grant program from the Office of Research to develop and test the initial versions of the product. The startup is working with several poultry companies to further optimize their custom machine learning algorithms in order to expand operations throughout the agricultural sector.
Pioneering a New Coffee Industry in California
In 2017, geneticists from UC Davis sequenced the genome of Coffea arabica —a species responsible for 70% of global coffee production—with the goal of developing new high-yielding and high-quality varieties adapted to the stresses caused by climate change.
Progress from the research enabled the formation of a new company, Frinj Coffee, founded by Jay Ruskey, a farmer, and Juan Medrano, a professor and geneticist from the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, along with Andy Mullins and Lindsey Mesta. The company is pioneering the coffee growing industry in California, well outside the traditional tropical geographic belt closer to the equator.
In 2018, Frinj Coffee joined the UC Davis-HM.CLAUSE Life Science Innovation Center—part of Venture Catalyst’s DRIVE network of incubators—to further develop novel coffee varietals that are adapted to grow within the specific soil and climate conditions of the state.
Frinj Coffee is providing coffee plants, consulting and post-harvest resources to over 40 new farms across Southern California—and has marketed coffee through Oakland-based roaster Blue Bottle Coffee, San Diego–based Bird Rock and premium international buyers.