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April 25, 2013 - Biotech Company Affiliated with USA College of Medicine Advances in Alabama Launchpad Competition
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Dr. Glenn Wilson (left), professor and chair of cell biology and neuroscience, with Dr. Mark Gillespie (right), professor and chair of pharmacology.

A biotech company affiliated with the University of South Alabama College of Medicine recently advanced in the Alabama Launchpad competition, along with six other start-ups.

The company, Exscien, led by Steve and Christine Cumbie, focuses its efforts on developing a new drug to prevent and reverse acute lung injury.

Dr. Mark Gillespie, professor and chair of pharmacology and a member of the Center for Lung Biology at the University of South Alabama College of Medicine, is one of the partners in the company. The USA College of Medicine is collaborating with Exscien in an effort to rapidly develop treatments.

After making it through the first round in the Alabama Launchpad competition, Exscien wrote an extensive business plan. On March 4, a judged pitch presentation event was held in Birmingham. From that, the competition’s judges narrowed the finalists to seven.

According to Dr. Gillespie, most lungs available for transplant cannot be used partly because of concerns that they will perform poorly after introduction into the patient. As a result, of the approximately 14,000 people currently awaiting a lung transplant, only a small fraction actually receive the new organ. Dr. Gillespie indicated that basic research performed by USA investigators pointed to the prospect that the new drug, when given to donor lungs, could increase the number of lungs that can be safely transplanted by fixing them prior to the transplant procedure.

Multiple studies by Dr. Gillespie and his colleague Dr. Glenn Wilson, professor and chair of cell biology and neuroscience at USA, showed that damage to the DNA of mitochondria – the powerhouse of the cell – functions like a fuse, killing lung cells in various diseases.

Dr. Wilson and his team invented and patented a fusion protein several years ago that repairs mitochondrial damage and wards off cell death and disease.

The company would develop fusion proteins for use in lung transplants after they are procured from the donor. The protein is given before the transplant to improve the quality of the lungs for transplant and to block primary graft dysfunction, a problem in which the lung fails within about 48 hours of being transplanted.

Both Dr. Gillespie and Dr. Wilson emphasized the importance of USA’s involvement in drug development research, as well as the importance of researchers commercializing their ideas.

“If products are not patented and commercialized, they will never make it to the marketplace,” Dr. Wilson said. “We are using this competition as a way to promote our company’s efforts to bring these fusion proteins to the marketplace so that they can help people.”

According to Dr. Gillespie, partnerships between universities and the private sector aren’t new, but they are fairly new for the state of Alabama and at USA. “In the current financial environment, where there is less and less money available to support basic research, it becomes increasingly important for researchers to commercialize their ideas,” Dr. Gillespie added. “We think this drug may really improve outcomes of lung transplant and may have applications in a wide range of other human disorders.”

The purpose of the Alabama Launchpad program is to promote and reward high-growth, innovative ventures that have the potential to grow and thrive in Alabama. The program is for new, independent ventures in the pre-seed, seed, startup or early-growth stages, or for the expansion of an existing business into a new high-growth market.

The Alabama Launchpad competition continues through May, when four or five winners are expected to split $100,000 in start-up capital. All of the seven start-ups that advanced will get an assessment of their business model by a third-party firm. “The main motivation behind participating in this competition is getting expert business advice,” Dr. Gillespie said.

To learn more about the competition, visit http://www.alabamalaunchpad.com/.

To read an article about the competition in the Press-Register, click here.

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