BALTIMORE—Two new startups spinning off from the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) are aiming to commercialize two very different tools to fight cancer. One company, Glycocept, is focused on developing a unique method of modifying monoclonal antibodies with the potential to increase their efficacy in anticancer therapies. The other company, Education and Scientific LLC (ESL), will attempt to commercialize a plant-based molecule with anticancer properties. The technology transfer arm of UMB, University of Maryland Ventures, has granted both startups exclusive licensing agreements.
Glycocept is focused on developing a patented technology called HyGly that offers a distinct twist on engineered therapeutic antibodies. Most currently used antibody-modifying technologies work by increasing the binding of an antibody to a cellular receptor that stimulates the killing of a cancer cell. HyGly works differently, altering glycostation characteristics of antibodies in a way that decreases binding to a cellular receptor that inhibits killing of a cancer cell.
“The current paradigm is to increase binding to the stimulatory Fc-gamma receptor while the HyGly paradigm is based on decreasing binding to the inhibitory Fc receptor,” Ronald Dudek, CEO and president of Glycocept, tells DDNews. “I like to use the analogy that current technologies work by putting a foot on the gas pedal while our technology works by taking a foot off the brake. It’s an extremely novel approach.”
Data in early studies suggests that HyGly’s inhibitory approach can complement antibody engineering technologies that work through the stimulatory approach.
The HyGly technology originates in the laboratory of Eric J. Sundberg, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and chief scientific officer of Glycocept. Dudek, who has 25 years of experience working in biotechnology and immunology research, most recently served as vice president of commercial strategy at Juno Therapeutics.
Dudek says Glycocept is currently in the in-vitro stage of data-gathering and is seeking funding for animal studies. The company plans to partner with pharmaceutical companies and other businesses producing antibodies to develop HyGly versions of existing antibodies. Dudek tells DDNews that Glycocept will also work to develop proprietary HyGly antibody drugs, such as biobetter versions of blockbuster antibody drugs with soon-to-expire patents.
“Glycocept’s novel technology has unique and broad applications that will enable strategic partnerships with other biopharmaceutical companies, as well as form the basis of our pipeline of proprietary therapeutic antibodies,” he explains.
ESL, the other newly launched spin-off from UMB, has earned exclusive licensing rights to its interest in the commercial development of a molecule that is derived from an epiphyte plant known as ball moss. The molecule has consistently shown potential as a therapy for a variety of cancers, including lung cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and cancers of the pancreas and prostate. The anticancer properties of the compound were jointly discovered by ESL and the university.
Ball moss, or Tillandsia recurvata, is a flowering plant that is often found clinging to trees and other large plants. The discovery of the plant’s anticancer properties is part of a wider effort to examine Jamaica’s medicinal plants for potential therapeutic purposes. Ball moss, which is common in Jamaica, has also shown potential as a neuroprotective agent that could be used to treat ailments such as Parkinson’s disease.
ESL was founded by Henry Lowe, an adjunct professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine who specializes in ethno-medicinal chemistry, molecular pharmacology and biochemistry. Lowe established ESL to conduct further research and development on bioactive plant compounds and to develop new pharmaceutical and nutraceutical products.
ESL’s efforts to commercialize the ball moss molecule will occur in collaboration with another institution founded by Lowe, Jamaica-based Bio-Tech R&D Institute. Lowe, a Jamaican native who has spent almost half a century studying the therapeutic potential of plant-based compounds, has over the past 10 years identified anticancer properties in several plant isolates. These discoveries were made in collaboration with Joseph Bryant, an associate professor of pathology and director of the animal models division at the Institute of Human Virology.
“It is often stated that it takes 10 to 12 years to take a drug from basic science to science to commercialization,” Lowe said in a written statement. “My team and I have now completed 10 years of work on this ball moss project, and we are satisfied that we are well on our way to commercialization. I am particularly pleased to say with confidence that we now have a drug with the potential not only to save lives, but also to create wealth for all involved.”
ESL is led by CEO Dr. Ngeh J. Toyang, an expert in the medicinal potential of plant isolates. “We are excited about moving our findings forward and developing a novel compound using ball moss isolates to combat some major cancers,” said Toyang in a written statement. “This agreement provides us the momentum to move forward in the development of our compound.”