Spinning Science into Gold
words by eve jacobs
ike a beaming parent at a child’s college graduation, Foundation Venture Capital Group (FVCG) stands proud and tall. Longevica Pharmaceuticals, Inc, one of five companies FVCG helped to “birth,” has taken a dramatic leap forward. On July 27, FVCG announced the sale of its equity interest in Longevica to Rostock International Ltd, a subsidiary of Rostock Group, a global investment firm based in Moscow.
The transition from university research to commercial company is huge. “We take a leap of faith but we need something that gives us a hope of commercialization,” says James M. Golubieski, president of FVCG, a NJ Health Foundation/Foundation of UMDNJ affiliate, which has committed up to $500,000 to each of five new companies founded by UMDNJ researchers. “We are not a granting agency. We are investors, looking for something that can make it in the future. But we recognize that pre-seed funding is the biggest need. The risks are high, so traditional venture groups are hesitant to invest at this stage.”
FVCG is the brainchild of George Heinrich, MD, vice chair and CEO of NJ Health Foundation and Golubieski. Their collaborator in this project, Vince Smeraglia, JD, director of UMDNJ’s Office of Patents and Licensing, “digs up the talent. Out of every 100 ideas that he studies, he brings 5 to us for a closer look,” Golubieski says.
The process has been ongoing since 2005 — every two months new ideas are presented. Of the few that make the cut, an outside group, hired by FVCG, does independent due diligence, studying the IP (intellectual property), proposed market and competition. Only one or two move forward.
Among the initial companies funded by FVCG was Longevica. Its founder and a professor at UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, Alexey Ryazanov, PhD, hit pay dirt as a young man in his 20s, not long after his graduation from Moscow University. Working in the laboratory of Alexander Spirin at the Institute of Protein Research at the Academy of Sciences, the young researcher discovered a “fundamental event in the process of protein phosphorylation that regulates the global rate of protein synthesis in the cell.” The research was published in Nature, July 14, 1988.
After spending 10 years there, Ryazanov came to the U.S., where he has since had a number of breakthroughs, all based on his initial discovery. He cloned — or determined the sequence of — a new type of enzyme, which he named alpha-kinase, and five more kinases of this kind. “The structure of most kinases is very similar, but this one is different,” he says. “We have discovered a whole new class of protein kinases.”
But a major paradox set off bells in the researcher’s mind. “The kinase we are working on is one of the most active kinases,” explains Ryazanov, “but when we tried to look at it in live cells, we couldn’t see any activity.” That’s when things got exciting. By creating a knockout mouse that could not produce this kinase — a mutation that the researchers thought would prove lethal — he investigators found that the absence of the kinase actually made the mice resistant to radiation and extended their lifespan.
“Usually, if you irradiate mice, some will die, others get gray hair,” he explains. “But if the mice do not have this kinase, they become protected from hair-graying and death caused by radiation.”
In cancer treatment, drugs are often highly effective in killing malignant cells, but in order to kill all the cancer cells, doses need to be pushed so high that they are highly toxic to normal tissues. A method to specifically protect normal cells without compromising the killing of cancer cells would be a winner.
Ryazanov’s method of selectively protecting cells by turning off the action of this enzyme could be the answer. From 1997 to 2007, his team developed and patented their technology. “I was a pure scientist,” he says, but given a little push, the researcher could see that this discovery was “obvious for commercialization. And because the structure of the kinase is so distinctive, it’s easy to make a specific inhibitor.” His company was founded in November 2008.
“My dream is to come up with a new drug,” he says, “that will enhance the efficiency of chemotherapy and protect against damage from radiation. Many things are in our favor. Mice without this enzyme can live for many generations with no ill effects, so we know for short-term cancer therapy, there won’t be a problem.”
This is where Rostock International comes into the picture. Founded in March 2009, it “focuses on projects that have the potential to improve the future of humankind and are significant for society in general,” says Rostock’s Dmitri Khan.
That’s why Rostock purchased FVCG’s and the University’s shares of Longevica, a sale that represented a substantial return on investment in less than 18 months.
“Rostock has the ability to invest additional capital to support Longevica’s research,” Golubieski states. “It could take several million dollars for the pharmacological and toxicity studies necessary to file an Investigational New Drug application with the FDA.”
“FVCG’s goal is to make a return on investment and support the development of new knowledge by UMDNJ faculty,” he continues.
That goal — in respect to Longevica — has been achieved.