ROCHESTER, N.Y., Jan. 12 /PRNewswire/ -- Trillium Group and the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) today announced that the University Technology Seed Fund will invest in the formation of OyaGen, Inc., a start-up company at work on a new class of HIV drugs that may enable the body's own immune system to virtually halt an HIV infection.
The company's groundbreaking research centers on a crucial enzyme called CEM15, which is produced by human immune system cells and is able to kill a wide range of viruses. Known as an "editing enzyme," CEM15 slips inside a virus as it is being assembled and later, attacks or "edits" its DNA -- that is, it makes chemical changes to the genetic instructions that allow the virus to replicate. With its DNA garbled, the virus can no longer replicate and infect other cells.
But unlike other viruses, HIV possesses the deadly ability to disable CEM15 by unleashing a protein called "vif" that latches onto it and prevents CEM15 from functioning. With CEM15 neutralized, HIV is able to infect cells and replicate freely, eventually overwhelming the immune system and leading to death.
Researchers at OyaGen are testing a potential drug designed to prevent vif from attaching to CEM15. In lab tests on HIV-infected cells, the drug shielded CEM15 and enabled it to function normally, nearly halting the spread of the infection to other cells. Studies seeking a variation of this drug -- delivered as a smaller molecule that is less likely to have side effects -- will begin within the year. The researchers will also attempt to deliver additional CEM15 directly to cells in hopes of providing enough of the enzyme to overwhelm HIV's VIF proteins and mount a successful attack on the virus' DNA.
The new drugs have been classified as HIV editing enzyme drugs, or HIVEE drugs, and many in the scientific community believe that an approach of targeting editing enzymes therapeutically may represent the most effective method yet for disabling HIV. While current antiviral drugs can stop HIV from replicating for a time, they ultimately prove ineffective because the virus eventually mutates, or changes, in ways that make it resistant to the current arsenal of drugs. In contrast, because OyaGen's HIVEE therapeutics facilitate a direct and lethal attack on the virus' DNA, they may solve the intractable problem of viral resistance.
To bring the first HIVEE drugs to market, OyaGen has combined the technology and knowledge base of Dr. Harold Smith -- an editing enzyme expert at the URMC, Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of Rochester and OyaGen's founder and Chief Scientific Officer -- with those of Dr. Hui Zhang, an HIV researcher at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. Dr. Zhang, an associate professor of medicine at Jefferson Medical College who will also serve as a scientific advisor to OyaGen, has developed technology involving potential ways to inhibit HIV.
Along with Dr. Smith's active participation, the early business development efforts were led by Trillium Venture Development, manager of the Seed Fund, in collaboration with the Technology Transfer Office at URMC and the University of Rochester's William E. Simon Graduate School of Business which provided a summer intern to the project. Members of the Trillium Venture Development Team will serve as interim executive managers and Bill Carpenter, former Chairman & CEO of Bausch & Lomb, is on the Board of Directors.
"The formation of OyaGen is precisely the type of business-science partnership, or technology transfer, that is necessary to move this science from the lab to the clinic," said C. McCollister Evarts, M.D., senior vice president and vice provost for Health Affairs at the University of Rochester and CEO of the UR Medical Center. "Dr. Smith's work has important implications for the treatment of HIV, and we want to move it into the commercial sector so that clinical trials can begin as rapidly as possible." Because of market need, HIV drugs typically experience rapid market adoption and peak market revenues between $250 million and $1 billion. If successful through all phases of its clinical trials, OyaGen's first anti-HIV drug should be market-ready by 2010.
"The HIVEE drugs that could be developed by OyaGen represent a new frontier in HIV therapeutics," said Jose Coronas, General Partner of Trillium Group, the fund manager of the University Technology Seed Fund. "The formation of OyaGen is an example of local and regional collaboration at its best."
Once the company's anti-HIV drugs are optimized, OyaGen will shift its focus toward other diseases that can be treated by chemically modifying specific RNA or DNA molecules.
Trillium Group, LLC is a venture capital and commercial development company specializing in start-up and early stage businesses. The Trillium Group team includes Judy Albers, Jose J. Coronas, Dennis M. DeLeo, Bud Frame, Chris O'Donnell, Kevin J. Phelps, Frank P. Strong, Jr. For information, contact Trillium Group at 585-383-5680, or visit the firm's web site at http://www.trillium-group.com/.
Trillium Group; University of Rochester Medical Center