The latest biotechnology company to put down roots at the University of Maryland BioPark in Baltimore features a gene therapy product that blocks cell division of pancreatic and bladder cancer cells in laboratory tests.
The company, Ablitech, Inc., has moved its operation from Hattiesburg, Miss., to Baltimore and is seeking venture funding and biotechnology partners to advance its patented product, Versadel, into animal and human trials.
Versadel is a polymer-based product that carries certain gene silencing bits of genetic material, which can be directed to targets such as cancer cells, while slipping past the body's immune defenses intact.
A successful delivery system has been an elusive goal of gene therapies "until now," says Ablitech CEO Ken Malone, PhD. (on left) Chief technology officer Nick Hammond, PhD, (on right) says, "We have successfully turned off genes in several different cancer cell lines including pancreatic and bladder cancers. This may be the future of cancer therapies."
During the past two years, the company has tested dozens of polymers as potential delivery products for driving selected short nucleic acid sequences, into target cells. These sequences are short pieces of DNA or RNA. There are millions of useful sequences known that may be useful in treating a variety of disease targets. But Ablitech is only studying a few that are known to silence or turn off certain genes in human cells, specifically cancerous ones.
Meanwhile, "thousands of these silver bullets have been sitting on the shelves at pharmaceutical firms for years that virtually can't be used to get after cancer," Malone says.
Versadel is unlike previous delivery systems based on virus carriers or polymer bubbles, which have had very limited success as gene therapies, says Malone. "We chemically modified the short sequences and hang polymers on them," says Malone. Once inside, the genetic material manipulates genes in the cancer cells that have malfunctioned. The Versadel polymers easily disperse after reaching the target cells.
"The lab tests were huge for us," says Malone. "That success means we have something that says we need to move to animal trials right now."
Company officials chose to move the company to Maryland and specifically to the University of Maryland BioPark, "where many potential partnerships are available in the city and state," Malone says.
The company considered moving to Triangle Research Park outside of Durham, N.C., to Cambridge, Mass., and a biotech cluster in New Jersey. But, Malone says, "This is now our home for a very good reason. The University of Maryland's research has a great reputation and there are other companies here we can partner with for animal and human trials of our products."
The BioPark is a biomedical research park of more than 20 companies located on the academic campus of the University of Maryland in Baltimore. Its community of life science companies and academic research centers are commercializing new drugs, diagnostics, and devices and advancing biomedical research.
Malone is a polymer scientist and a former administrator of economic development and entrepreneurship at the University of Southern Mississippi. Prior to joining Ablitech in 2007, Malone founded, or was an officer, of five biotechnology or advanced materials companies.
Ablitech has a payroll of 10 and is currently recruiting more employees. The company recently closed on a $700,000 seed capital round and the Department of Defense has awarded the company a $2 million development contract. In 2005, the concept for Ablitech was conceived as a result of a National Science Foundation-backed program to foster entrepreneurship.