Just back from BIO, where two of the most interesting conversations I had were with companies from Down Under.
First was Paul Tan, CEO of Living Cell Technologies, which is officially headquartered in Melbourne Australia, but operates out of Auckland, New Zealand. The company is developing a diabetes therapy that involves implanting specially encapsulated pig pancreas cells in the human body, where they can replace some of the function of the human islet cells that produce insulin.
The company uses a nifty technology to create microspheres about a half millimeter in diameter that can hold hundreds of thousands of islet cells. The microspheres, made of a seaweed-based gel, protect the cells from the immune system, and Tan says thereâ€™s hope that cells can continue to function for years. â€œThereâ€™s one patient whoâ€™s had an implant for ten years,â€ he says. â€œWe recently tested, and theyâ€™re still producing insulin.â€
The treatment, called DiabeCell, will be going into clinical trials in the US next year. So far, five insulin-dependent diabetics have been dosed with it. They averaged a 40 to 80 percent drop in the amount of insulin they needed to take. One went off insulin for several months.
Itâ€™s a fascinating and promising technology, but the key to it all is something distinctly low techâ€”the company’s biocertified pig herd. â€œThey come from pigs who were abandoned on the Auckland Islands by whalers and lived isolated for 200 years,â€ says Tan. Theyâ€™re remarkably free of viruses and parasites.â€ The company has created two breeding herds and maintains them in special facilities. It takes about 15 fetal pigs to treat a single patient. (The company is also exploring other therapies that make use of other cells from the pigs.) Tan expects that within the next few years the herd will be able to produce enough cells to treat 1,200 patients.
Doubling Up on Pain
â€œThe one thing youâ€™re never supposed to do is put two opiates together,â€ says John Holaday, CEO of QRx Pharma. But when researchers at the University of Queensland did just that, they discovered that lower-than-normal doses of oxycodone combined with lower-than-normal doses of other opioids, they produced good pain relief with fewer side effects.
That insight led to QRxâ€™s lead candidate, Q8003I, an immediate-release morphine-oxycodone combination drug targeted at moderate to severe pain. The drug recently completed a placebo-controlled Phase III trial that showed it effective and well-tolerated. â€œThere was no somnolence, no euphoria,â€ Holaday told me.
Holaday himself is a serial entrepreneur. He was a co-founder of Medicis in 1988, EntreMed in 1992, and launched the cell therapy company MaxCyte. How does a neuropharmacologic researcher (Holadayâ€™s previous gig) wind up starting companies. â€œI had a good scientific career,â€ he said. â€œI had some patents. But I got frustrated.â€
Photo by Fleur-DesignÂ