Release Date: December 7, 2021
BUFFALO, N.Y. — Four startups founded or co-founded by University at Buffalo researchers have received Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) awards from the National Institutes of Health to advance research on potential vaccines or therapies for a variety of diseases.
The companies are:
All four startups have received technology transfer assistance and other support through UB’s Business and Entrepreneur Partnerships (BEP) team. Faculty founders of three — Abceutics, Immune Modulatory Therapies and Transira Therapeutics — received awards from the Buffalo Innovation Accelerator Fund administered by BEP.
The university provides a range of support to faculty entrepreneurs, including seed funding, help with patent and grant applications, opportunities to locate in incubators, and assistance in identifying experienced entrepreneurs and business teams who can help move innovations to market.
“UB researchers pioneer life-changing innovations every day,” says Christina Orsi, UB associate vice president for economic development. “By supporting them with guidance, funds and space, and partnering them with business experts to serve as company leaders, we can advance those innovations into the world to really change lives.”
SBIR project: Abceutics is developing drugs called payload-binding selectivity enhancers (PBSEs) that aim to improve performance of a certain class of cancer therapies: antibody-drug conjugates (ADCs). ADCs can damage healthy cells, and PBSEs are designed to block this undesired toxicity, says Abceutics co-founder Joseph Balthasar, PhD, professor of pharmaceutical sciences and David and Jane Chu Endowed Chair in Drug Discovery and Development in the UB School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. The idea is to administer PBSEs and ADCs together. The SBIR project will test how well Abceutics’ lead PBSE agent increases the safety of sacituzumab govitecan, an ADC used to treat triple-negative breast cancer.
Why this work matters: “In general, the efficacy of cancer treatments is limited by their toxicity,” Balthasar says. “Development of strategies to reduce the toxicity of anti-cancer agents, such as our PBSE technology, may allow safe administration of curative doses — helping more patients to survive cancer.”
“If our work is successful, we hope to move to testing in cancer patients — hopefully blocking debilitating toxicities of ADCs and also enabling safe administration of higher ADC doses to allow improved anti-cancer efficacy,” he adds.
Balthasar’s lab previously received a $1.8 million NIH grant to conduct mechanistic studies that will inform discovery and development of multiple PBSEs.
UB support: Abceutics is licensing UB technology. Balthasar’s UB lab received $110,000 from the Buffalo Innovation Accelerator Fund to advance research on PBSEs. Abceutics team members benefited from UB’s I-Corps Site Program, focusing on customer discovery, and the company is leasing incubator space in UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences.
SBIR project: Immune Modulatory Therapies will use its SBIR funding to study the safety and efficacy of ExoBlock, a cancer-fighting drug the company is developing. The treatment targets exosomes, which are vesicles that tumor cells can release into the surrounding environment. Exosomes can hinder the performance of patients’ immune systems, inhibiting the activity of immune cells called T cells that help kill tumors. ExoBlock is designed to improve patients’ immune responses by blocking exosome-mediated immune-suppression, thereby restoring T cell function. The SBIR project involves preclinical testing of ExoBlock, focusing on ovarian and skin cancers. Results from initial efficacy studies were recently published in the Journal for ImmunoTherapy of Cancer, a top-tier immunotherapy journal.
Why this work matters: “The drug we are developing, called ExoBlock, aims to enhance cancer patients’ anti-tumor immune responses, and is expected to be useful in treating different solid tumors,” says Immune Modulatory Therapies co-founder Richard Bankert, VMD, PhD, professor emeritus of microbiology and immunology in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB.
UB support: ExoBlock was jointly developed by UB, IMT and Molecular Targeting Technologies Inc. (MTTI), another life sciences company. Bankert’s UB lab previously received $83,000 from the Buffalo Innovation Accelerator Fund, and research relating to ExoBlock also received support from the UB Center for Advanced Technology in Big Data and Health Sciences (UB CAT) and the Product Development Fund administered by UB. IMT and UB have licensed commercial rights to ExoBlock to MTTI, and IMT will continue to collaborate with MTTI to advance R&D on the potential drug.
In addition to the company’s three co-founders — Bankert, Sathy Balu-Iyer, PhD, and Robert Chau, PhD — other UB investigators working with Immune Modulatory Therapies include Gautam Shenoy, PhD, a research scientist in UB’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology who has been subcontracted by Immune Modulatory Therapies to conduct studies with ExoBlock.
SBIR project: The need for ultra-cold storage complicates delivery of some COVID-19 vaccines, posing a challenge to global vaccination campaigns. POP Biotechnologies aims to address this problem by developing a new vaccine: one that can be dehydrated, stored and shipped at room temperature, and then rehydrated at vaccination sites. The company’s SBIR project — led by Wei-Chiao Huang, PhD, the startup’s director of vaccine development and a UB biomedical engineering postdoctoral researcher — focuses on using a method called freeze-drying to dehydrate doses of an injectable, liquid COVID-19 vaccine whose components include specialized liposomes. Freeze-drying takes water out of a product by freezing liquid water into ice, and then turning ice into vapor in a process called sublimation. The formula of this new potential vaccine differs from the formula of EuCorVac-19, a vaccine developed by POP Biotechnologies and South Korean biotech company EuBiologics that is in human trials in South Korea.
Why this work matters: “Requirements for vaccine storage, especially at freezing temperatures, limits global access, especially for low-income and developing countries,” says POP Biotechnologies co-founder Jonathan Lovell, PhD, a SUNY Empire Innovation Associate Professor in biomedical engineering in the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and in the Jacobs School. “Having a thermostable vaccine could facilitate distribution.”
UB support: POP Biotechnologies is licensing UB technology. The startup, a past winner of UB’s Henry A. Panasci Jr. Technology Entrepreneurship Competition, is located in UB’s Incubator @ Baird. The company has received funding from the UB Center for Advanced Technology in Big Data and Health Sciences (UB CAT) and Bruce Holm Memorial Catalyst Fund, and support from the Entrepreneur-in-Residence program run by UB’s Innovation Hub.
In addition to Lovell, Huang and Jonathan Smyth, other key team members with UB connections include Xuedan He, PhD, POP Biotechnologies’ director of oncology development and a UB biomedical engineering postdoctoral researcher; and Hilliard Kutscher, PhD, POP Biotechnologies’ director of operations and a UB researcher.
SBIR project: Transira Therapeutics is developing a pill to help Type 2 diabetes patients control their blood sugar while facilitating weight loss — without the need for injections. The company’s SBIR project focuses on synthesis and preclinical studies of its active ingredient: an oral peptide hormone that uses Transira’s proprietary peptide stapling chemistry to enhance potency, improve oral absorption and increase the amount of time the peptide can survive in the body. The goal is to develop a pill taken once daily. Transira Therapeutics researcher Yifang Yang, PhD, is heading the SBIR work. Yang is also a research scientist in UB’s Department of Chemistry.
Why this work matters: “Peptide hormones are extraordinarily potent and efficacious medicines for treating diabetes. However, almost all of them require injections, which poses a continuous burden to patients,” says Qing Lin, PhD, Transira founder and professor of chemistry in the UB College of Arts and Sciences. “Transira is engaged in developing chemically modified peptide hormones that can be taken as oral tablets.”
“The COVID pandemic revealed that patients with diabetes and obesity are far more likely to have severe cases of COVID, leading to an increased rate of hospitalization and mortality,” Lin adds. “We believe that by offering patients a convenient and powerful once-a-day pill to effectively manage their conditions, it would go a long way toward blunting the impact of this silent health crisis in our society.”
UB support: Transira Therapeutics is licensing technology developed by Lin’s team at UB and partners at the California Institute for Biomedical Research (Calibr) at Scripps Research in La Jolla, California. Lin’s UB lab received $81,250 from the Buffalo Innovation Accelerator Fund, as well as awards from the SUNY Technology Accelerator Fund and the Bruce Holm Memorial Catalyst Fund. Transira team members took part in a Pre-Seed Workshop hosted at UB, and the startup also received support from the Entrepreneurship Law Center, and the Entrepreneur-in-Residence program run by UB’s Innovation Hub.