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July 27, 2012 - Scientific Discovery at USA College of Medicine Leads to Formation of Biotech Company

A scientific discovery made at the University of South Alabama College of Medicine has led to the formation of one of the first biotech companies to be launched along the Gulf Coast.

The company, Exscien, led by Steve and Christine Cumbie, was recently awarded a Science and Technology Transfer (STTR) grant by the National Institutes of Health to support the development of 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 will collaborate with Exscien in an effort to rapidly develop the treatments.

According to Dr. Gillespie, there are currently no drugs to effectively manage acute lung injury.

“Acute lung injury complicates a wide variety of medical disorders – from trauma and infection to transplants,” he said. “The STTR grant will examine the effectiveness of the drug in increasing the number of lungs that are available for transplant and in reducing lung rejection.”

Dr. Gillespie said 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.

He said the drug will also target a major complication called primary grant dysfunction, a problem in which the lung fails within 48 hours of being transplanted.

Over the past decade, 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.

“This new drug targets a repair enzyme to fix the DNA and protect the lung cells from injury,” Dr. Gillespie said. “It has real potential to emerge as a treatment for acute lung injury.”

During the first year of the grant, the researchers will verify the effectiveness of the drug. They will then begin experiments in human lungs. “This means we should be ready to begin experimenting in lung transplant patients in two to four years,” Dr. Gillespie said. “If it works well in human lung transplant, we’ll rapidly move to trials of the drug for acute lung injury.”

Dr. Gillespie emphasized the importance of the University’s involvement in drug development research. “This is one of the first biotech startups affiliated with the University,” he said. “One of the University’s goals is to promote economic development in our service region, and drug development is one way we’re doing that.”

Dr. Gillespie said the STTR grant and Exscien are developments that emerged from an earlier funding cycle of a program project grant – or PPG – awarded by NIH to a team of pulmonary scientists at USA’s Center for Lung Biology. The PPG grant was recently renewed to examine the causes and consequences of pneumonia, a lung infection that is a major source of illness and death for children and adults over 65 years of age around the world.

To read the article published in the Press-Register, click here.

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