New company will seek drugs against diabetes and cancer

A new St. Louis-based company will use a novel technology to rapidly screen thousands of drugs for their effectiveness against two of the biggest health threats in the United States -- diabetes and cancer.

Ross Cagan, Ph.D., professor of molecular biology and pharmacology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and Thomas Baranski, M.D., Ph.D., professor of medicine, will head the new company, Medros Inc. The company's technology can identify drugs with medical benefit by capitalizing on extensive information currently available about fruit fly biology and genetics.

Launched with the joint backing of the School of Medicine and BioGenerator, a nonprofit group formed to help spawn biotech companies from university research, Medros will soon begin operation in the Center for Emerging Technologies in St. Louis.

The company arose from a collaboration between Cagan and Baranski, who is also an endocrinologist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Cagan showed Baranski a method developed in his lab for determining if a drug could correct abnormal development in the eyes of fruit flies. Impressed with the concept, Baranski asked if it could be adapted to screen for drugs that could alleviate the complications of diabetes.

"People with diabetes can go blind, their kidneys can fail and their nerves can die," says Baranski. "We don't have any good drugs for counteracting these effects. We know that high blood sugar contributes to these problems, so I went to Ross and asked if his fruit fly system could uncover why high glucose can be toxic."

This challenge led to a full-fledged screening system in which fruit flies, grown from eggs to adults in tiny chambers, serve as indicators of a drug's effect. In this instance, if a fruit fly can grow normally on a high sugar diet in the presence of a particular drug, the drug could potentially lessen the toxicity of high sugar in diabetics, according to Baranski.

Using fruit flies for drug screening is fast and inexpensive because the flies' short life spans and small size allow quick turnaround and multiple simultaneous tests in a small space. Furthermore, the technique determines a drug's effect on the whole organism, not on isolated cells.

"If you start the process of screening drugs by looking at cells in a dish, you miss the effect of drugs on the molecular pathways involved in the whole organism," Cagan says. "For example, metastasis of cancer is actually a response to normal tissue sending a signal to tumor cells telling them to leave the tumor. If you study cancer in a dish, you can't look at that process at all. For decades, researchers have studied cancer this way because it's easy. But that hasn't resulted in significant progress toward a cure."

Cagan and Baranski have developed their screening method to identify drugs effective against metastatic cancer. A simple change in the appearance of specially engineered fruit flies can indicate that a drug may prevent metastasis.

The researchers are confident that their fruit fly model parallels human physiology to a great extent. Molecular pathways that play a role in diabetes and cancer are present in both humans and fruit flies, according to Cagan.

In addition, the researchers feel their approach may be superior to more traditional approaches that go after one disease target, such as a chemotherapeutic drug that aims to influence one gene responsible for cancerous growth.

"With our method, we aren't asking what the target is -- we're letting the system tell us," Cagan says. "We're just asking for the bottom line. Do the flies get better? If you find the magic compound that hits everything that contributes to the disease in just the right amount so that the fly can live, then you've made true progress."

Medros gives the researchers a mechanism to obtain private drug libraries, establish the effectiveness of their technology and potentially attract commercial interest to their discoveries.

"We believe in the technology," Baranski says. "But we're scientists, not businessmen. That's where BioGenerator came in. They were willing to invest in us, and together with the Office of Technology Management here at Washington University, they were able to help us through the fairly involved process of creating a company."

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The Office of Technology Management assists faculty members who wish to translate their research to the private sector to fully realize its benefit to society while generating income to support research and education.

BioGenerator previously has invested in four other companies, all located in St. Louis. But Medros is the first BioGenerator-funded company originating from research conducted at Washington University.

Serving on the science advisory board of Medros are School of Medicine faculty members Kenneth S. Polonsky, M.D., the Adolphus Busch Professor and head of the Department of Medicine; John F. Dipersio, M.D., Ph.D., deputy director of the Siteman Cancer Center and the Lewis T. and Rosalind B. Apple Professor of Medicine; and Phillip Needleman, Ph.D., adjunct professor of molecular biology and pharmacology.

Washington University School of Medicine's full-time and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children's hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked fourth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children's hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.

Siteman Cancer Center is the only NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center within a 200-mile radius of St. Louis. Siteman Cancer Center is composed of the combined cancer research and treatment programs of Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine.

BioGenerator is a non-profit corporation that facilitates the formation of plant and life science companies in the St. Louis region. It identifies promising university-based life science technologies, then provides the seed funding and other professional resources and support to turn the technology into early-stage companies. Major contributors to BioGenerator include the Danforth Foundation, the James S. McDonnell Foundation, Monsanto, and Bunge North America.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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