Five life sciences researchers at the University of Minnesota carrying out some of the most commercially promising work have been given a boost toward the market with the latest round of funding from MN-REACH, a program run by the U of M and the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
, supported by a $3 million NIH grant and $3 million in matching university funds, is based out of the school’s Office for Technology Commercialization. It is one of three “research evaluation and commercialization hubs” established by the federal agency around the country, whose missions are to distribute grants of up to $150,000 for health care technologies that both address unmet medical needs and are within “a few actionable steps” of commercialization.
Some examples of this might include cancer therapies which can be brought rapidly into clinical trials; medical devices related to treatments of brain conditions; or therapeutics which are closer to commercialization. So in that regard, looking at MN-REACH grant recipients can be a good way to gain insights into what new research from U of M scientists may be soon be placed before investors.
The winners of the program’s fourth funding cycle were announced late last month, including promising projects addressing the human microbiome, sleep disorders and sleep apnea, epilepsy and other potential markets. Below is a brief description of each.
Human microbiome diagnostic assay
One of the latest batch of MN-REACH grants went to U of M Genomics Center's R&D lead Daryl Gohl and director Kenny B. Beckman
, who are working in one of the hottest emerging research fields for investment capital – the human microbiome.
According to MN-REACH, the team's efforts are an idea to develop a “robust clinical diagnostic assay” for the human microbiome, which comprises the billions of bacteria within the gut. How the microbiome changes in response to disease and its effect on overall health has emerged as one of the more promising areas of medical research.
At the same time, recent advances in gene sequencing and bioinformatics are helping to provide a deeper insight into the nature of the host-microbial interactions and identification of potential genes and pathways associated with human health, well-being and predisposition to different diseases.
The U of M’s Genomics Center provides contract genomics research, with an overall mission of advancing genomics in Minnesota generally. It maintains “state-of-the-art instrumentation” and offers services including sequencing, expression, genotyping, nucleic acid extraction and related support.
Novel ways of reversing dental cavities
Over at the U of M dental school, Alex Fok
, director of the Minnesota Dental Research Center of Biomaterials and Biomechanics
, landed a MN-REACH grant, as well. His project is entitled “Novel methods for reversing dental caries (cavities) in human enamel.”
According to the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, where he was a visiting scholar, Fok’s recent research efforts in biomechanics have centered on the evaluation and optimization of dental restorations, making use of techniques that he has developed for nuclear graphite research.
He possesses expertise in structural and stress analysis, with research activities covering a range of topics in solid mechanics, nuclear technology and biomechanics both at a fundamental level and related to practical applications.
New therapy targeting sleep apnea epidemic
Meanwhile, well-known pulmonologist and sleep apnea expert Dr. Conrad Iber
, also a U of M medical professor, was awarded a MN-REACH commercialization grant for what was described as an “innovative obstructive sleep apnea therapy and diagnostic tool.”
Although the details of Iber’s sleep apnea research were not revealed by MN-REACH, in 2015, the professor co-authored a scholarly article contending many instances of sleep apnea remain undiagnosed, despite increasing awareness about the condition.
The prevalence of sleep apnea, he pointed out, has greatly increased along with the epidemic of obesity: The surge in sleep apnea and global obesity have risen in tandem, creating “a need for new diagnostic strategies.”
Deep brain stimulation to treat intractable sleep disorders
A U of M associate neurology professor claimed a MN-REACH grant in the latest cycle for his work in deep brain stimulation to treat sleep disorders as well as Parkinson’s Disease, Dystonia and other movement disorders.
Gerald F. Molnar
, formerly the director of neuromodulation research for Medtronic PLC, currently serves as an Industrial Fellow at the U. In that role, he has been working with a research team on a deep brain stimulation (DBS) project—a procedure in which a neurostimulator device (sometimes called “brain pacemaker”) is implanted in the brain. The device sends electrical impulses to specific targets within it.
The U effort is aimed at producing new DBS technologies, including leads that can better shape the stimulation, and new devices that sense signals from the brain and can deliver special types of electrical therapy pulse patterns.
The DBS project got a major boost last year when the U of M was named a Morris K. Udall Center of Excellence for Parkinson’s Disease Research
by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a status that came along with a $9 million grant.
Nasal spray for halting epileptic seizures
Finally, Ronald Siegel
, a U of M pharmaceutics professor, was awarded funding for his project, “Intranasal delivery of benzodiazepine prodrug/enzyme combinations for seizure rescue.” Basically, the innovation involves the delivery of rapid-response drugs to treat epileptic seizures through a nasal spray.
The goal of the research is to “introduce an organic solvent-free intranasal spray formulation that will facilitate rapid absorption of benzodiazepines, enabling preventative or rescue therapy for seizure emergencies.”
The only feasible way to deliver such anti-seizure meds now is via an IV administered by trained medical professionals—obviously a time-consuming and difficult procedure while a seizure is ongoing. Thus, the possibility of a nasal route is of great interest, but the low water solubility of benzodiazepine has been a barrier to that idea.
Under Siegel’s research, scientists are taking a new approach to intranasal drug delivery by using water-soluble “prodrugs” of benzodiazepines: chemicals that differ slightly from the active drug but which can be converted to the active drug, often by an enzyme. They envision a spray system in which the prodrug and enzyme are mixed in the spray, followed by rapid conversion to the active benzodiazepines and absorption across the nasal tissue.
They say this system, if successful, may rapidly ameliorate or even prevent seizure emergencies.