Marine biotech project born on a racetrack
Deal is done, race has just begun
October 15, 2010By Alison Lee Satake
About a year ago at the Virginia International Raceway in Danville, a Wilmington scientist and a businessman collided by chance. The chance meeting sparked a recent new business venture.
The University of North Carolina at Wilmington scientist and professor, Jeff Wright, who has owned a racecar team for about 30 years was introduced to Alastair McEwan, a businessman who lives in Cary. It turned out the two had a lot in common. Both were from Scotland. Both now work with biopharmaceuticals in North Carolina. And, McEwan had worked for a contract research organization in Scotland whose board chairman was Wright’s best friend in college at the University of Glasgow.
“It’s like six degrees of separation,” said Wright, a UNCW department of marine science professor. His research includes identifying marine microorganisms and culturing them in the lab for potential biopharmaceutical use.
Wright learned that day at the racecar track that his fellow Scotsman had a background in international clinical trials and contacts in the drug development industry.
The two met several times and saw the potential for collaboration.
“The big picture is the pharma industry needs new drug candidates, and when we first met with Jeff Wright and his colleagues it was apparent that they have a library that is likely to have numerous drug candidates in it,” said McEwan.
In July, McEwan and two colleagues launched a company in Cary called Ocean Therapeutics to specifically focus on facilitating relationships between UNCW and large pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.
That same month, Ocean Therapeutics signed an agreement with the university’s Marine Biotechnology in North Carolina or MARBIONC, for which Wright is one of the lead researchers.
From lab to market
According to the contract, Ocean Therapeutics has exclusive rights to three technologies and a non-exclusive for a fourth developed by MARBIONC, Wright said.
But all intellectual property rights will remain with the university.
The contract is for 18 months, Wright said. But the company based in the Research Triangle has already expressed an interest in becoming one of the future tenants in the new MARBIONC research and development building, which will begin construction in October.
If Ocean Therapeutics is successful, the company would like to establish a group of staff at MARBIONC, McEwan said.
He said the company is in discussion with a number of major multinational pharmaceutical companies about MARBIONC’s discoveries. Because venture capital funding is volatile and the IPO market has a reduced access to cash, Ocean Therapeutics’ target is large pharmaceuticals and major players in the biotechnology industry that have the resources and are already developing drugs in a variety of therapeutic areas.
“I think the thing that makes the UNCW library stand out amongst others is the way they have managed it into a catalog of culturable organisms,” McEwan said.
Thus far, MARBIONC has a catalog of about 700 unique marine organisms that can be cultured in the lab.
“We know marine organisms as much as anyone else does,” Wright said. But “after we’ve made the discovery, what do we do? Who will appreciate this? These guys at [Ocean Therapeutics] are extremely well-connected. They know what doors to knock on, who to call. They can take our technologies to companies and groups that might be interested in developing it in the future. That’s a science in itself.”
From the library of marine organisms, scientists at MARBIONC are creating a library of compounds.
Ocean Therapeutics will give those compounds to pharmaceutical companies to screen. When a company finds a compound that is of interest, Ocean Therapeutics will help isolate, identify, characterize and manufacture more of it for them. The scientists at MARBIONC can also modify the compound to make it more effective for a pharmaceutical developer, McEwan said.
UNCW and Ocean Therapeutics will share the value of that success according to an agreement similar to the Carolina Express license agreement written for UNC Chapel Hill. That agreement entitles the university to royalties on 1 percent of products requiring FDA approval based on human clinical trials, and 2 percent on all other products.
Only about 2 percent of the compounds in the library have been screened at MARBIONC. Among that small sample, a few compounds have been identified as effective, such as an oily microalgae that can be used as an alternative source for omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids benefiting cardiovascular health.
Rather than eating fish that have the polyunsaturated fatty acids or PUFAs, you can get the nutrients directly from the source.
“What’s so special about it is the organisms are grown under the best cultured conditions in a clean environment. The oil is free of contaminants and heavy metals, and people who are allergic to fish have no reaction,” Wright said.
Another promising compound was found in our own backyard. MARBIONC scientists discovered a marine bacteria on the ocean floor off the coast of North Carolina, cultured it in the lab and were able to produce an antibiotic that attacks specific bacteria while leaving the natural flora in your digestive tract intact.
The race to discovery
Ocean Therapeutics can talk to one company that is interested in screening a whole library of compounds while talking to other companies that may only want to work with a specific one.
“When we talk to potential collaborators, we are very much trying to focus on the areas theyare interested in,” McEwan said.
Having a range of products to bring to the table increases the company’s competitive edge. Because only one in three approved drugs recoup development costs, according to McEwan, the drug development industry is a high-stakes race.