Raleigh life sciences conference shines light on Triangle startups

jmurawski@newsobserver.comFebruary 26, 2014 

— A pill that simulates bariatric surgery. A simple blood test for breast cancer. Genome editing research to create nontoxic castor beans.

This is a sampling of North Carolina’s entrepreneurial endeavors featured during the first day of the CED’s Life Science Conference in Raleigh. The two-day conference by the entrepreneurship nonprofit continues at the Convention Center on Thursday with speakers scheduled from Google Ventures, Morgan Stanley, Harvard Business School and other nuclei of entrepreneurial activity.

The five startups and spinoffs featured Wednesday were mostly from the Triangle and selected to represent the diversity of the state’s entrepreneurship culture.

Their arcane names are virtually meaningless to the layperson – KinoDyn, CanDiag, BioKier, Nova Synthetix and Improved Patient Outcomes – even though the mission statements of these tiny companies aim to solve some of society’s most vexing health problems.

They are among the estimated hundreds of entrepreneurial companies statewide, representing the very early stages of of bioengineering and other advanced research. Some expect to run out of cash long before they hit the commercial jackpot, but are still holding out hope that multinational giants will buy them out and continue underwriting their research and development.

CanDiag is a UNC-Charlotte spinoff that’s developing the blood test for breast cancer. The three-employee company is 1 1/2 years old and has raised $1.7 million in investments, grants and loans, including support from the N.C. Biotechnology Center, said co-founder and CEO Pinku Mukherjee, who’s also a cancer research professor at UNC-Charlotte.

The kit would cost several hundred dollars per test and could be introduced as early as late 2015, Mukherjee said.

“It is definitely going to be much cheaper than a mammogram,” she said.

The blood test is designed to spot a glycoprotein that’s altered in cancerous tissue. It’s not the first blood test for breast cancer, Mukherjee said, noting that the American Society for Clinical Oncology currently does not recommend any of the existing blood tests. CanDiag’s test is designed to eliminate false negatives and achieve improved reliability, she said.

BioKier in Chapel Hill is developing a pill to trick the body into thinking it has undergone bariatric surgery, commonly known as stomach stapling.

“That’s our whole concept – bariatric surgery in a pill,” said co-founder, President and Chief Operating Officer Roger Nolan.

In this case, however, the intended cure is not for obesity but for diabetes.

Bariatric surgery restores the secretion of hormones that stimulate the release of insulin. BioKier’s treatment is designed for Type II diabetics and would provide the hormone without the surgery. Currently, diabetics are injecting the hormone or the insulin that their bodies are not producing.

Five-year-old BioKier has three employees and is five years away from commercial viability, Nolan said. The company has raised more than $3 million and is conducting small clinical trials in Greenville and at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

Nova Synthetix, also in Chapel Hill, is just 6 months old and has raised about $50,000 so far, including a loan from the N.C. Biotechnology Center. The company doesn’t expect to have a commercial product before 2019, said David McElroy, the chief operating officer.

Nova’s goal is to help produce castor seeds that produce castor beans free of ricin, a lethal toxin that has to be removed from the beans by heat treatment or chemically. The company is conducting genetic experiments with the ultimate goal of creating a nontoxic variety of castor plant.

Castor oil is used in polymer manufacturing, lubricants, solvents and can be converted into a diesel fuel. The oil for this $1 billion industry is largely grown in India, McElroy said, but solving the toxicity problem could revive the crop in the United States by eliminating the treatment process.

Nova is working with N.C. State University, which is supplying greenhouse space, and with Precision Biosciences in Durham, which is providing enzymes for the project.

“You can think of it as gene therapy for crops,” McElroy said.

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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