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UNM licenses ‘cell cleaning’ technology

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — University of New Mexico technology to ramp up the body’s immune response to disease is edging closer to market thanks to a new Albuquerque startup.

Biophagy LLC, which formed late last year, obtained a provisional license in January from UNM’s Science and Technology Corp. to commercialize a process to fight targeted diseases by inciting a natural cleansing system in cells known as “autophagy.”

Vojo Deretic, chair of UNM’s molecular genetic and microbiology department, developed the autophagy-stimulation process through extensive cell-culture research. Now, Biophagy will conduct the first clinical trials, said Stuart Rose, investor and company founder.

“All his (Deretic’s) work to date has been done in petri-dish cell cultures, so the challenge now is how to use his process in living beings,” Rose said. “Biophagy will begin that kind of research, starting with mice. We’re organizing our management team now and getting ready to design the experiments.”

Deretic has for years been at the forefront of international efforts to harness autophagy to fight disease. UNM, for example, received a $1 million grant in 2011 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for Deretic to search for drugs that can stimulate the natural cleansing process, which relies on specialized organs inside cells that eliminate harmful microbes.

“It’s like an internal vacuum cleaner,” Deretic said. “If a pathogen, virus or anything malfunctioning gets inside the cell, the vacuum comes in to get it.”

As people grow older, autophagy becomes less efficient, which is one possible explanation for why elderly people develop diseases such as Alzheimer’s. In addition, autophagy often breaks down with many chronic illnesses, such HIV or Crohn’s disease.

But after screening thousands of existing drugs, Deretic’s team has found compounds that appear to stimulate autophagy in laboratory cultures.

Biophagy will now look at how to deliver the compounds to fight targeted diseases. Since it’s testing existing drugs, Biophagy could achieve U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval faster than with new pharmaceuticals.

“That can help us get to market quicker,” Rose siad.

Biophagy is housed at Albuquerque’s new BioScience Center, which Rose founded last summer. Rose expects to spend about $300,000 for initial research before seeking venture capital or corporate partners. “It’s still very early, but there’s tremendous interest in this field across the pharmaceutical industry,” Rose said.
— This article appeared on page B1 of the Albuquerque Journal