Portland-based Virogenomics plans to be ready to launch clinical trials of treatment for multiple sclerosis early in 2003
The company, Virogenomics, Inc., is a Portland-based genomics-enabled drug developer focused on the discovery of novel drug targets and drugs to treat human diseases. The company recently raised more than $2.1 million in equity financing from Oregon, across the United States and Europe to further develop the new technologies into products.
"Virogenomics is a sterling example of how OHSU can help Oregon become a leader in biotechnology," said Peter Kohler, M.D., OHSU president. "As we expand our research capacity over the next decade through The Oregon Opportunity campaign, other companies like Virogenomics will be born. These companies will employ Oregonians and diversify the local economy."
"It's a great credit to both the company and the science behind it that Virogenomics has obtained financing and experienced leadership in the current challenging economic environment," said Todd T. Sherer, Ph.D., director of technology and research collaborations at OHSU. "We're pleased that the company has matured and taken this major step."
The first product expected to be tested in human beings next year will be a proprietary new class of therapeutics for autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis. The drugs, which target certain T cells in MS patients to suppress inflammation in the brain, have been developed by Arthur Vandenbark, Ph.D., career research scientist at the Portland Veteran Affairs Medical Center (VAMC) and a professor of molecular microbiology and immunology, and neurology, OHSU School of Medicine; Gregory Burrows, Ph.D., research associate professor of neurology, and research assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, OHSU School of Medicine; and Halina Offner, Ph.D., research immunologist, VAMC, and professor of neurology, OHSU School of Medicine.
"We hope that suppressing inflammation in the brain will result in clinical improvement," Vandenbark said.
Virogenomics also has licensed a unique technology, based on cells and viruses, for identifying and validating genes as potential drug targets for other diseases, including cancer and cardiovascular disease. The inventors are scientists at OHSU's Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute (VGTI). They are Jay Nelson, Ph.D., director of the VGTI, and professor of molecular microbiology and immunology, OHSU School of Medicine; Klaus Frueh, Ph.D., associate scientist and director of the Gene Microarray Shared Resource at the VGTI; and Ashlee Moses, Ph.D., assistant scientist at the VGTI and research assistant professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at OHSU School of Medicine.
The scientists have developed a way to study diseases in a test tube that are particularly difficult to study in living human beings. "We have been able to generate unique cell systems to grow pathogens that mimic the disease process," Nelson said. Gene microarray technology has enabled the scientists to identify genes affected by the pathogens and validate their findings.
The proprietary technologies have already resulted in two U.S. patents. Under its license agreement, OHSU is a shareholder of Virogenomics. The university also receives funding from Virogenomics to support the research and is entitled to royalties and a share of sublicense fees on any products commercialized by Virogenomics as a result of these technologies.
Vandenbark said Virogenomics is key to the university's ability to move promising technologies from the lab to the clinical arena, where they can benefit patients. "There needs to be a way for research with commercial potential to get help with commercialization," he said.
"OHSU has already discovered and will continue to develop technologies and products that bring enormous health benefits to the entire world," said Adolph J. (Al) Ferro, Ph.D., president and CEO of Virogenomics. "The technologies licensed from OHSU make Virogenomics a pioneer in the application of human viruses to drug discovery."
Virogenomics has assembled an experienced biotechnology management team, including:
Adolph Ferro, president and chief executive officer. Ferro was president and chief executive officer of Epitope, Inc., a publicly held medical biotechnology company now known as OraSure Technologies, Inc. (NASDAQ: OSUR) from 1990 to 1997, and of Agritope, Inc., an agricultural biotechnology company, also publicly held, which was spun-off from Epitope in December 1997. Agritope was acquired by Exelixis, Inc. (NASDAQ: EXEL) in December 2000 in a merger transaction valued at $100 million.
Gilbert Miller, executive vice president and chief financial officer. He was executive vice president and chief financial officer of Epitope and of Agritope.
James Hicks, chief technology officer. Hicks co-founded Sapient Health Network, which was acquired by WebMD (NASDAQ: HLTH) in 1999. He was also president of Hedral Therapeutics and, before that, senior director, science, of ICOS Corporation (NASDAQ: ICOS) in Seattle.
Andrew Goldstein, vice president of product development. He was a founder of Epitope and served as its senior vice president of advanced technology development.