Evincor, established by a husband-and-wife research team at the University at Buffalo, would bring to market a protein complex found in breast milk that can weaken the resistance of MRSA and other “superbugs” to antibiotics.
Two scientists at Roswell Park Cancer Institute have formed a company, MimiVax, to commercialize a cancer vaccine that tricks the body’s immune system to kill tumor cells.
And a founder of CH3 Biosystems – a company based at the New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences that won a UB entrepreneurial contest – is forming a new corporation to market a cheaper and more efficient way of developing drugs.
The three fledgling companies are among the newest additions to Buffalo Niagara’s growing biotech sector, and their founders are optimistic their research will translate into market-ready, life-saving innovations – if they can raise enough capital to get off the ground.
“When you’re starting, everyone thinks the idea is really cool, but no one wants to give you any money because they don’t know,” said Anders Hakansson, an Evincor founder and UB assistant professor of microbiology and immunology. “They want something that they know is working, but no one wants to put in that first money.”
The biomedical research performed in laboratories and on computer networks at UB, on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and elsewhere in the region is expected to fuel the local economy of the future.
The two companies profiled here are a snapshot of the 277 biotech companies in Western New York, a total that experts say represents a promising start to creating a competitive and viable biotech sector.
But given the financial and regulatory challenges the companies and their founders face, are the lofty expectations realistic?
“I think they can be met, but I think we need to build an ecosystem first. We can’t just decide to flip a switch and become a technology hub,” said Harl Tolbert, Roswell Park’s director of tech transfer and commercial development.
Evincor – the name combines “evinco,” the Latin word for “overcome,” and the letter “R” for resistance – was started by Hakansson and his wife, Hazeline, a research assistant professor, to commercialize research performed by the Hakanssons and graduate student Laura Marks.
Anders Hakansson discovered the protein complex at the heart of their work. Known by the acronym HAMLET, it is found in human breast milk and can reverse the resistance to antibiotics of the bacteria that cause staph infections, pneumonia and other serious illnesses.
The MRSA “superbug” is a focus of their research because of the difficulty and the high cost of treating staph infections. HAMLET can combine with the antibiotic methicillin to attack MRSA, in the same way that cocktails of drugs have proven effective in combatting AIDS.
HAMLET has shown promise in lab testing, and the scientists now are studying its effect on skin infections in mice.
They hope to soon move to testing its safety in humans, though because HAMLET is found in breast milk, scientists say the complex shouldn’t be toxic to people.
UB’s technology-transfer office has aided the Hakanssons in getting their company started and in identifying sources of funding. The Hakanssons hope a successful Phase I clinical trial will spark interest in HAMLET and Evincor from investors.
Dr. Robert Fenstermaker and his Roswell Park colleague, Mike Ciesielski, formed MimiVax to develop an anti-cancer therapy that targets a molecule, survivin, that is present in brain tumors and other difficult-to-treat, often-fatal tumors.
The survivin peptide is naturally found in the body, so the immune system doesn’t respond to its presence.
The peptide vaccine is engineered to stimulate an immune response, killing cancer cells that express survivin, because the immune system is tricked into recognizing it as “a foreign invader,” said Fenstermaker, the chairman of Roswell Park’s neurosurgery department.
The injectable vaccine, known as SurVaxM, is a molecular mimic, and the name MimiVax comes from using mimics to vaccinate. The partners launched the company after about eight years of research.
They have started a Phase I trial, which should be finished this spring, and next would look to start a larger-scale, Phase II clinical trial that likely requires the financial backing of a major drug company.
“That’s what the company is all about, to try to move this to a point where hopefully it can help people,” Fenstermaker said.