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UTHSC Research Spinoffs Gain Momentum with National Business Grants

Grants totaling more than $1 million will help advance the development of new drugs by UTHSC-led teams.

A recent spate of awards shines a light on the strides UTHSC researchers are making in translating their discoveries into novel solutions for human health and well-being.

Three licensees, two spinoffs founded by UTHSC researchers and one long-standing partner, have received funding from the highly competitive Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs. These national programs bridge the gap between basic science performed at non-profit research institutions and the commercialization of resulting innovations. Each award will fund work being done by UTHSC-led research teams to move the development of new drugs forward.

The companies and awards are:

  • Oncternal Therapeutics, Inc., received a $1.8 million SBIR award, $350,000 of which is earmarked for preclinical development of a molecule developed in the UTHSC College of Pharmacy and College of Medicine to treat Kennedy’s Disease, a rare progressive neurodegenerative disease caused by an abnormal androgen receptor protein. The research team includes Ramesh Narayanan, PhD, professor and interim dean for Research in the College of Medicine; and Duane Miller, PhD, professor emeritus in the College of Pharmacy.
  • Oak Ridge Therapeutic Discovery (ORRxD), LLC, received a $249,658 Phase 1 STTR award to optimize small molecules to treat age-related and disuse osteoporosis. The compound, developed through a multicampus collaboration between UTHSC and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, inhibits adipogenesis (formation of fat cells from stem cells) in vitro, and stimulates osteoblast-mediated bone formation while inhibiting bone marrow fat accumulation in vivo. Funding will support a study to de-risk these novel chemical mechanomimetics. The research team includes Darryl Quarles, MD, professor, and Zhousheng Xiao, PhD, associate professor, both in the College of Medicine; Wei Li, PhD, distinguished professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences and director of the Drug Discovery Center in the College of Pharmacy; and Jeremy Smith, PhD, professor at UT Knoxville and director of the UT/Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) Center for Molecular Biophysics.
  • SEAK Therapeutics, LLC, received a $429,932 Phase 1 STTR to advance the pre-clinical studies of the compound JW-65 (a selective TRPC3 ion channel inhibitor) for the treatment of seizures and epilepsy. This patented compound, which has clinically promising metabolic stability and safety profiles, was developed in the College of Pharmacy. It has good brain penetration and retention, directly binds to TRPC3, and shows promising efficacy in several acute seizure models. Funding will support preclinical studies to thoroughly de-risk JW-65 as a potentially viable clinical candidate for targeted epilepsy therapy. The research team includes Dr. Wei Li along with Jianxiong Jiang, PhD, associate professor, and Zhongzhi Wu, PhD, associate professor, both in the College of Pharmacy.

“The impact these awards have in relation to their actual dollar amounts is huge,” said Todd Ponzio, PhD, vice president of the UT Research Foundation, which is the custodian of all intellectual property coming out of UTHSC and the UT System institutions. “SBIRs and STTRs provide social validation essential for building a business resumé. These awards show the science, research, and individuals have been vetted by a group of research and academic peers and judged to have tremendous potential. Securing an SBIR or STTR speaks to the sustainability of a business and helps establish credibility to show other funders.”

“We’re excited to see these awards because it means that research originating at UTHSC will be that much closer to becoming real products to help patients,” said James Parrett, PharmD, JD, staff attorney of the UT Research Foundation. “Products are the best measure of real-world research impact, and these SBIR and STTR awards are a huge leap forward towards that finish line.”

Beyond enhancing the reputation of the individual companies they support, these federal investments boost the already phenomenal track record set by researchers in the College of Pharmacy. The funded research portfolio of Dr. Li and Dr. Miller have helped propel the UTHSC College of Pharmacy to No. 6 in the country in funding from the National Institutes of Health, and to what may be the most highly ranked asset in the UT system, Dr. Ponzio said.