Taking the RNA for a little spin

Scripps Florida spin-off CuRNA focuses on non-coding RNA

Jeffrey Bouley
JUPITER, Fla.—The Scripps Research Institute's biomedical science, drug discovery and technology development operation in Florida recently gave birth for the second time, this time with a spin-off named CuRNA. According to its founders, the new company spinning out from Scripps Florida will use a novel technology licensed from La Jolla, Calif.-based Scripps Research that is based on the therapeutic potential of non-coding RNAs.

"This is the second time for a company to be spun out of Scripps Florida, but the first one to have labs and employees here in Florida," notes co-founder and CEO Joe Collard. The first, Xcovery, was launched in 2006 by Scripps Research scientist Chris Liang. The intellectual property that forms the heart of CuRNA is based on a 2005 patent application filed by Scripps and authored by Claes Wahlestedt, Collard's fellow co-founder and the Scripps Florida professor who heads Scripps Florida's efforts to develop drug candidates for diseases of the central nervous system.

Various types of non-coding RNA exist, including microRNA and small interfering RNA (siRNA). The technology licensed by Wahlestedt and Collard is broad-based and covers a wide swath of non-coding RNA territory, but Collard says it deals with a novel application for handling RNA knockdown.

"RNAi is one method, of course, for doing that, but this patent covers multiple methods and in addition to our initial targets for cancer applications, we see some interesting cardiovascular applications as well," Collard says. "This is a new approach that, to our knowledge, isn't being followed by anyone else.And it's not just your standard knockdown. There are targets we can reach with this that won't be reached by standard RNA knockdown techniques."

"We have licensed a fairly broad patent with many different targets in major therapeutic areas that fall under the non-coding RNA umbrella including metabolic disease and cancer," Wahlestedt adds. "Depending on the specific nature of the RNA involved, they can either elevate or suppress gene expression. These things can be used in a number of important ways—to treat disease or as diagnostic markers or tools."

Having such a broad patent isn't without its drawbacks, Collard says, among them that enforcing the patent may be more challenging and in some jurisdictions it might not even be fully applicable. "[But] it gives us a nice, broad space to work in. At this stage of the game, [it] will take a lot of investment capital—and one-trick ponies are risky for investors, so the broad application potential is to our advantage there."

So far, CuRNA has two employees, one of them a high-level bioinformatics consultant to identify potential targets, and the company has begun buying highly specialized equipment and setting up its own lab within another biosciences firm in Palm Beach Gardens.

Wahlestedt expects to identify specific compounds for CuRNA's broad targets, conduct further research and register additional patents. But biotech is a long-term process, and those goals are far in the future, he adds. For now, both men say their hands are full getting CuRNA firmly established. DDN

Jeffrey Bouley

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