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Smart Laser Device Tracks, Kills Mosquitoes

Mosquito photo sequence

Photo sequence showing photonic fence illuminating and killing mosquito with laser (Intellectual Ventures Laboratory)

23 May 2016. Tests with two species of insects show an electronic device called a photonic fence can identify, track, and kill harmful bugs while in flight. Results of the tests, conducted by Intellectual Ventures Laboratory in Bellevue, Washington, developer of the photonic fence, appear in this week’s issue of Optics Express, published by the Optical Society.

Photonic fence was designed to meet a need worldwide for effective solutions that control mosquitoes carrying infectious diseases, including Zika virus and malaria that pose a growing threat to both developed countries, including the U.S., and low-resource regions. In addition, citrus fruit growers in the U.S. and elsewhere face an outbreak of citrus greening, a bacterial disease also carried by a small insect, the Asian citrus psyllid, that according to USDA, destroyed more than three-quarters of citrus crops in Florida.

Control of mosquitoes or other harmful flying insects up to recently usually meant chemical pesticides, or physical barriers such as bed nets. Pesticides can be harmful to humans, particularly people with extended exposure to the chemicals. While some electronic options are available such as LIDAR, a form of radar using light adapted to hunt mosquitoes, those alternatives are expensive.

The Intellectual Ventures Lab team, led by Eric Johanson, developed photonic fence as a lower-cost, more easily deployed technology that could be adapted to controlling multiple types of harmful insects. As described in Science & Enterprise, Intellectual Ventures Lab acquires patent rights to new inventions, then arranges their licensing, financing, and development with business and not-for-profit organizations as sponsors. The sponsor in this case is Global Good Fund, backed by philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates, that brings together government, business, and not-for-profit organizations to develop new technologies to improve the life of residents in the poorest regions in the world.

Photonic fence contains cameras to spot flying insects and light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, to illuminate the target. Sensors measure wing speed and other unique characteristics of the female mosquito, for example, and controllers to aim an ultraviolet laser beam to hit the mosquito. On-board software distinguishes female mosquitoes that spread diseases like malaria from males, and other insect species not considered harmful, such as bees. The system then determines no bystanders are in the line of sight, and shoots a beam strong enough to kill the mosquito.

Johanson and colleagues, including researchers from U.S. Department of Agriculture, tested the photonic fence in the lab with two likely insect targets, Anopheles stephensi mosquitoes that carry malaria parasites and smaller, quicker Diaphorina citri psyllids that spread citrus greening bacteria. The results show photonic fence detects insects flying in the test space, and using measurements of wing beats, distinguishes between the two species. In addition, the wing beat measurements make it possible to tell male from female mosquitoes.

Tests of the lasers to kill the insects, conducted with psyllids, identified the lowest, yet still effective, lethal dose, an important factor where power sources may not be reliable. The entire process of detecting, tracking, and killing the target insects, says Johanson, takes about 100 milliseconds.

“Used as a virtual fence, the photonic fence can be deployed as a perimeter defense around villages, hospitals, crop fields, etc.,” notes Johanson in an Optical Society statement.  “Over time, the population of target insects inside the protected region would be decreased to the point of collapse.”

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Venture Firm Funding Univ. Blood Diagnostics Technology

Blood sample

(Public Domain Pictures/Pixabay)

23 May 2016. A life sciences venture capital company is funding development of a technology at an Israeli research lab using DNA from blood tests to diagnose a range of diseases. Aurum Ventures is providing $1.2 million to Hebrew University of Jerusalem, through its technology transfer affiliate Yissum Research Development Company, for the university lab creating the technology.

The technology, being developed at Hebrew University’s Medical Research Institute, isolates circulating DNA in the blood resulting from natural cell death that occurs with illness or tissue damage. In addition, the process designed in the lab of research biologist Yuval Dor identifies changes in the DNA caused by methylation, where the chemical structure of DNA is altered by disease or injury. Dor’s research indicates that many conditions have unique, characteristic patterns of DNA methylation that act as signatures when found in blood samples.

Dor and colleagues published a proof-of-concept study in March 2016 that tests the technology with blood plasma or serum samples to detect 5 different types of illness or injuries. The team’s process isolates the circulating DNA, treats the DNA with sodium bisulfite, then amplifies with polymerase chain reactions and sequences the DNA to reveal the methylation pattern.

The results show the technology can identify circulating DNA biomarkers for dead pancreatic beta cells associated with type 1 diabetes, myelinating cells of the central nervous system linked to multiple sclerosis, and neuron or glial brain cells associated with traumatic brain injury or cardiac arrest. The researchers also use the process to identify dead cells in the pancreas linked to pancreatitis or pancreatic cancer.

Aurum Ventures, in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv, is a venture capital enterprise founded by entrepreneur and media/telecommunications executive Morris Kahn. The company invests in Israeli life sciences, pharmaceutical, and medical device companies at all stages.

Yissum Research Development Company expects to discuss the circulating DNA technology at the IATI-BIOMED 2016 Conference, held this week in Tel Aviv.

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Graphene Adds Stretch to Natural Rubber, Plastic Films

Graphene-rubbngser test ri

Rubber rings used to test rubber-graphite composites. From left, natural rubber alone, natural rubber with graphene oxide added, natural rubber with reduced graphene oxide (University of Manchester)

20 May 2016. A team in the U.K. discovered that adding a small amount of the material graphene creates more stretchable thin films made from natural rubber and plastic. Researchers from the lab of materials science professor Aravind Vijayaraghavan at University of Manchester describe their findings in a recent advance publication of the journal Carbon.

Vijayaraghavan and colleagues from Manchester’s Nano-Functional Materials Group are seeking ways of boosting the strength of elastomers, stretchable materials like natural rubber and polyurethane plastic, found in a wide range of industrial and consumer products. When produced as thin films, elastomers are made into condoms and rubber gloves. Vijayaraghavan received a grand challenge grant award in 2013 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a “next-generation” condom with graphene to better protect against transmission of the HIV virus, which funded this research.

Graphene is a material closely related to graphite like that used in pencils, consisting of only a single layer of carbon atoms arrayed in a hexagonal mesh pattern. The material is very light, strong, chemically stable, and can conduct both heat and electricity, with applications in fields such as electronics, energy, and health care. Manchester is the center of graphene development in the U.K., if not the world, being the home of Sir Andre Geim and Sir Kostya Novoselov, who received the Nobel Prize in physics in 2010 for their work demonstrating the properties of graphene.

The researchers created composites of natural latex rubber and water-based polyurethane with the addition of graphene in various amounts, particle sizes, and chemistries, and tested the composites on films made with dip molding, an industrial method for manufacturing rubber gloves and coatings on objects for corrosion protection or added grip, as well as condoms. Apex Medical Technologies, a medical device manufacturer in San Diego that uses dip molding, was a partner with Vijayaraghavan’s lab in the study.

The team tested the rubber and polyurethane composites, produced as films with a thickness of 20 microns; 1 micron equals 1 millionth of a meter. The results show a small amount of graphene oxide — 0.1 percent by weight — added to these materials increases their elasticity by 50 percent. Graphene oxide is a more stable form of graphene that dissolves in water, and thus more feasible with dip molding.

While graphene is a conductor of electricity, tests also show the composites, with only small amounts of graphene,  have low conductivity. This is important since the integrity of thin films is tested non-destructively with an electric current, and keeping the conductivity of the material in the same range as rubber or plastic films without graphene means manufacturers can continue using this testing method.

Vijayaraghavan notes in a university statement that his lab is “seeing considerable industrial interest in this area and we hope more companies will want to get involved in the commercial opportunities this research could create.”

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New Process Boosts Injectable Drug Purity, Safety

Drug particles in suspension

Drug particles in suspension, with excess surfactants removed (Jonathan Lovell, University at Buffalo)

20 May 2016. A team of engineers and chemists developed a process for enhancing the purity and safety of drugs given with injections by removing excess additives, while keeping the drugs easy to inject. Researchers from University at Buffalo in New York, led by biomedical engineering professor Jonathan Lovell, describe their process in yesterday’s issue of the journal Nature Communications.

Lovell’s group is seeking an answer to a long-standing need of formulating hydrophobic, or water-repelling drugs for injection, which means suspending minute compound particles in liquids for delivery. In many cases, drug manufacturers use surface active agents, or surfactants, that break down the connection between water, oils, and particles enabling particles to float, or suspend, in the liquid. Some surfactants, however, can cause allergic reactions in some patients, such as blood clots and anaphylactic shock.

Finding alternatives to surfactants up to now meant milling drug particles to nanoscale dimensions, which the authors say works for oral compounds, but for many injectable drugs, particles are still too large or risk contamination from microbes. Other approaches taken by scientists are to start from scratch with entirely new formulations of drugs, which can be time consuming, or use additives other than surfactants to suspend drug particles in liquids that could also induce adverse effects in recipients.

The researchers sought to keep the current process of employing surfactants with injectable drugs, but sharply reduced the amount of surfactant needed, thus creating a safer form of the drug that can still be injected. Their method combines current drug formulations with poloxamer, a biocompatible polymer marketed as Pluronic, used as a dispersant or wetting agent, and approved for pharmaceuticals. The process then chills the drug/Pluronic solution to 4 degrees Celsius (39.2 F). At this temperature, most of the surfactants can be filtered out of the solution through a membrane, leaving frozen drug molecules called micelles with minimal surfactant content, from 100 to 1,000 times less.

The team tested their process with a collection of compounds and biologic treatments given with injections, including common drugs such as cabazitaxel given in chemotherapy, the immunosuppressive drug cyclosporine to prevent organ rejection after transplants, the blood clotting drug phylloquinone also known as vitamin K1, and the male hormone testosterone undecanoate.

Resulting micelle particles ranged from 39 to 165 nanometers; 1 nanometer equals 1 billionth of a meter. In some cases a saline solution was added to prevent the particles from aggregating. The researchers also tested the purified drugs in lab mice for efficacy and dosage levels.

“Essentially, it’s a new way to package drugs,” says Lovell in a university statement. “For the drugs we looked at, this is as close as anyone has gotten to introducing pure, injectable medicine into the body.”

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Grid Computing Power Applied to Zika Research

In Charge

Carolina Horta Andrade at Federal University of Goiás in Brazil, the lead researcher on the OpenZika project. (Ana Fortunato, IBM)

19 May 2016. A consortium in Brazil and the U.S. is employing distributed grid computing to provide processing power for research on prospective compounds for treating Zika virus infections. The OpenZika project is using World Community Grid, an initiative of IBM Corporation that links researchers at Federal University of Goiás in Brazil, Rutgers University in New Jersey, University of California in San Diego, and the company Collaborations Pharmaceuticals in North Carolina specializing in rare infectious diseases.

World Community Grid harnesses power in idle computers or mobile devices running the Android operating system, in this case to screen potential treatments for the growing number of Zika infections in the Americas that threaten the U.S. The Zika virus causes fever, with rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye. Most symptoms reported are mild, but Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the virus is linked to infections in pregnant women resulting in microcephaly and other severe brain defects. Zika is associated as well with Guillain-Barré syndrome and other neurological disorders.

The virus is spread by Aedes species mosquitoes, also associated with dengue and chikungunya viruses. Sporadic Zika virus outbreaks were reported in Africa and Asia, but an epidemic broke out in 2013 in French Polynesia, which spread to other Pacific islands. In 2015, outbreaks first occurred in northeast Brazil, and later spread to Colombia and Suriname in the fall of 2015. In Brazil alone, as many as 1.3 million cases are suspected. CDC says Puerto Rico reported its first Zika case in December 2015. There are no vaccines to prevent or treatments for Zika virus infections. Avoidance of mosquitoes is the only known control.

World Community Grid is expected to provide much more computing power than normally available to individual labs. Researchers will use that power to screen compounds from current databases against molecular and crystalline models of Zika proteins. The screening itself will use an open-source program called AutoDock Vina from Scripps Research Institute that tests for the molecular orientation and signaling capacity among of target compounds.

Carolina Horta Andrade at Federal University of Goiás, lead researcher on the project says in an IBM statement that “Enlisting the help of World Community Grid volunteers will enable us to computationally evaluate over 20 million compounds in just the initial phase and potentially up to 90 million compounds in future phases.” Horta adds that the project “will accelerate the rate at which we can obtain the results toward an antiviral drug for the Zika virus.”

Volunteers can offer idle computing time on the World Community Grid Web site. Participants download and run a free app for their systems, supported on Windows, Mac, and Linux computers, and Android mobile devices. No time or expertise are required. IBM says the results of the screenings will be shared with the research community, with the most promising compounds tested further in participating labs.

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Disclosure: The author owns shares in IBM

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Start-Up Licenses Genetics Technology for HIV Diagnostics

David Raiser and Iain MacLeod

David Raiser, left, and Iain MacLeod, founders of Aldatu Biosciences (Aldatu Biosciences)

19 May 2016. A spin-off company from Harvard University is licensing genetics research to develop more powerful tools to detect drug-resistant strains of HIV. Financial details of the agreement between the 2 year-old Aldatu Biosciences Inc. and Harvard were not disclosed.

Aldatu Biosciences is the creation of pathologist Iain MacLeod and geneticist David Raiser that founded the company in 2014. The company is commercializing research by MacLeod and colleagues at Harvard’s school of public health, where they studied HIV drug resistance as part of the Botswana-Harvard AIDS Institute in Gaborone, Botswana. MacLeod is Aldatu’s chief scientist, while continuing his work with the Harvard’s AIDS initiative. Raiser is the company’s CEO.

While antiretroviral drugs are available to treat HIV infections, the HIV virus continues to evolve, including into strains resistant to some current treatments, which can also elude detection with current tools. The problem is magnified in low-resource regions, where the public health infrastructure is weak, drugs are not always available, and treatments can be interrupted.

Aldatu is commercializing processes that makes more precise detection of differences in the genetic code of HIV viruses, with a technology called Pan-Degenerate Amplification and Adaptation, or Pandaa, developed by MacLeod and Christopher Rowley, now at Harvard Medical School. Pandaa speeds up the analysis of viral genomes, looking specifically for single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs, small variations at specific points in the genome, suspected of causing resistance to drugs.

MacLeod discovered in the field, conventional analytic tools using polymerase chain reactions took 2 to 3 days to analyze just a few samples from patients, which made them infeasible for diagnosing entire populations. Pandaa, says MacLeod, can distinguish between critical SNPs, and avoid other variations in the genome not affecting drug resistance. By focusing on the key SNPs, the analytical process goes much faster.

“A sensitive and affordable Pandaa drug resistance test,” says MacLeod in a company statement, “could help ensure that HIV-infected patients are taking effective medications, help clinicians make informed and cost-efficient decisions about drug prescriptions, and help resource-constrained health care systems save money and treat more patients.”

Raiser and MacLeod began Aldatu Biosciences as part of Harvard Innovation Labs, a program encouraging entrepreneurship among students and faculty. Not long after its founding, the company won the Deans’ Health and Life Sciences Challenge, a competition among start-ups with a $40,000 grand prize.

The new licensing deal gives Aldatu exclusive rights to the university’s intellectual property for Pandaa, applied to clinical diagnostics and lab research on infectious diseases, including disorders other than HIV. The company received a $1.5 million Small Business Innovation Research grant in 2015 from National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, part of NIH, and other seed funding from Charles Hood Innovations.

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FDA Approves Trial Testing Stem Cells for Brain Injuries

Gordie Howe

Gordie Howe (

18 May 2016. A company developing stem cell therapies says the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved its application for a clinical trial testing stem cell treatments for traumatic brain injury. The intermediate-stage trial, sponsored by Stemedica Cell Technologies Inc. is part of a research and educational project on traumatic brain injury, known as the Gordie Howe Initiative, named after the professional ice hockey legend.

The study is co-sponsored by ProMedica Health Care Systems, the site of the trial in Toledo, Ohio. ProMedica is also a co-sponsor of the Gordie Howe Initiative; Murray Howe, one of Gordie Howe’s children, is a radiologist at ProMedica.

Stemedica Cell Technologies in San Diego develops treatments for cardiovascular, neurological, skin, and vision disorders with mesenchymal or adult stem cells. The company says its culturing methods in a low-oxygen environment simulates conditions inside the body, and yields larger quantities of stem cells with consistent quality for therapies. In addition, says Stemedica, its stem cells express more growth factors associated with blood-vessel growth and healing than comparable adult stem cells.

Traumatic brain injuries are caused by a blow to the head or penetrating head wound, such as a gun shot, that disrupt the normal functioning of the brain. The effects can be minor and temporary, such as concussions, but some can cause extended loss of consciousness. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say 138 people in the U.S. die every day from traumatic brain injuries, accounting for 30 percent of all injury deaths. CDC estimates in 2010, traumatic brain injuries accounted for 2.5 million hospital emergency room visits.

FDA approved the company’s investigational new drug application for the clinical trial. The study will enroll 24 individuals with moderate to severe traumatic brain injury, to test the safety and efficacy of treatments with allogeneic — from unrelated donors — adult stem cells. The stem cells will be derived from bone marrow tissue from healthy volunteers. The first treatments in the study are expected to begin this summer.

Gordie Howe, nicknamed “Mr. Hockey,” had a long and storied professional hockey career, mainly with the Detroit Red Wings in the National Hockey League, and after a two-year retirement, for Houston and New England in the World Hockey Association. Howe played 32 years, up to age 52, winning the Hart Trophy — most valuable player award — in the NHL 6 times, and leading Detroit to 4 Stanley Cup championships.

Howe played in an era when hockey players did not wear helmets. Even with helmets, which began in the 1970s, hockey players are susceptible to concussions, as are participants in other contact sports such as football, rugby, and boxing. The Gordie Howe Initiative expects to raise awareness of traumatic brain injuries, and focus on military veterans and accident victims, as well as athletes.

In 2014, Howe suffered a stroke, and took part in a clinical trial testing Stemedica stem cells as a treatment, which the family says improved his condition.

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Fast, Inexpensive Test for Water Bacteria Developed

E. coli bacteria

E. coli bacteria (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

18 May 2016. A team at York University in Toronto designed a water-testing kit connecting to a smartphone that makes testing for water-borne bacteria faster and less expensive. The Mobile Water Kit, from the lab of engineering professor Sushanta Mitra, is described in a recent issue of the journal Analyst (free registration required).

Developers of the kit started a spin-off company from the university, Glacierclean Technologies Inc. in Toronto, to commercialize the technology. Mitra is one of the company’s founders.

Mitra and colleagues at York University created the system to meet a need for easier ways to test for microbes in water, such as E. coli bacteria. While water-borne bacteria are a major public health problem in developing regions, contamination of water supplies happens in economically developed areas as well. In 2000, some 2,300 of the 5,000 residents in the the rural town of Walkerton, Ontario fell ill from E. coli contamination in their drinking water, leading to 7 deaths. News reports of the incident quote a regional public health official saying the outbreak could have been prevented.

Current water testing technologies require taking samples and sending them to a remote lab for testing, a process that often takes a whole day or more. The Mobile Water Kit returns results on the spot in 1 to 2 hours, with a simple color test to indicate the presence of E. coli in the sample. The testing device then sends the results to a smartphone app for display and transmission.

The test kit uses a hydrogel matrix with a combination of enzymes and chemicals the York team tested to find the optimum mix for E. coli detection. The hydrogel, a material containing mainly water with enough substance to form into a 3-D gel matrix, fits into a plunger-tube assembly that mixes with the water sample. If the sample contains E. coli, the enzymes react to the presence of bacteria and change the water to a visible red color. If there are no E. coli in the sample, the color of the water does not change.

“This is a significant improvement over the earlier version of the device” says Mitra in a university statement, “that required more steps, handling of liquid chemicals and so on.” The researchers also estimate the kit can return results for about CAD 3.00 (USD 2.30) a test, much less expensive than current methods.

“We have received a significant number of queries from related industries,” says Naga Siva Gunda, president of Glacierclean Technologies and a co-author of the research paper. “We strongly believe that the product is in a unique position as the only one available in the market for rapid detection of E. coli.”

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ReWalk, Wyss Institute Developing Soft Exoskeleton Robot

Robotic exosuit

Robotic exosuit being tested (Biodesign Lab, Harvard University)

17 May 2016. A robotics company is licensing technology from a bioengineering lab at Harvard University to develop systems for people needing help with mobility, such as those with multiple sclerosis or suffering a stroke. Financial aspects of the deal between ReWalk Robotics Ltd. in Yokneam Ilit, Israel and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard were not disclosed.

ReWalk Robotics, founded in 2001, develops robotics systems called exoskeletons, providing support for legs made immobile from conditions such as spinal cord injury. Its latest exoskeleton model, version 6.0, provides motors at the knees and hips, and senses changes in the wearer’s center of gravity to initiate stepping motions. These stepping motions, says the company, simulates the natural gait of a person walking.

The agreement with the Wyss Institute licenses research by engineering professor Conor Walsh, director of Harvard’s Biodesign Lab developing an exosuit, similar in concept to ReWalk’s exoskeleton, but designed for people with limited mobility, including the elderly, and those suffering a stroke or with multiple sclerosis. Soft exosuits take advantage of the wearer’s limited mobility, providing support to joints and muscles, but leaving natural biomechanics unconstrained.

To provide this kind of support for people with limited mobility requires more complex systems with sensors woven into the fabrics and control systems that allow the individual to interact with the robotics. Sensors in the exosuit react not only to movements by the wearer, but also tensions in the fabrics, which act as extensions of the robotic devices. The exosuit blurs the line between apparel and robotics, with its fabrics are worn tightly on the body to provide support and sense all muscular activity in the legs, yet also designed to be comfortable.

The exosuit’s actuator and control systems, worn on a belt at the waist, also need more sophistication. The exosuit needs to detect and anticipate the intent of the wearer to provide added mobility to the limbs at the right time and with the amount of force required. At the same time, muscle movements not needing an assist remain unconstrained.

“ReWalk brings commercialization expertise and experience in the area of wearable robotics and complements our translation-focused research,” says Walsh in a joint statement. “Ultimately this agreement paves the way for this technology to make its way to patients.”

Under the agreement, ReWalk and Wyss Institute will collaborate on further development of the exosuit into clinical trials, as well as regulatory approvals, with commercialization worldwide expected by 2019. ReWalk and Wyss Institute cite estimates of 3 million people in the U.S. with lower-limb disability from stroke, and 400,000 people with multiple sclerosis.

Walsh and colleagues tell more about the exosuit in the following video.

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Braeburn to Continue N. Carolina Facility Despite HB2

North Carolina postcard

(Boston Public Library, Wikimedia Commons)

17 May 2016. Braeburn Pharmaceuticals, a developer of treatments for opioid addiction, will continue with its plans to build a research and manufacturing facility in North Carolina, despite its opposition to a recent state law overturning local ordinances prohibiting discrimination against the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) individuals. The company says the state’s Attorney General, who also opposes the law, advised the company that it can do more good by advocating from within rather than protesting through departure.

Braeburn’s proposed $20 million facility on Durham County, North Carolina is expected to employ 52 workers. The company says it reviewed its plans when the governor signed House Bill or HB2, a law that gives the state authority to overturn city or county laws providing access to school bathrooms or locker rooms based on gender identity, rather than the student’s biological sex. The law provoked a storm of protest both inside and outside the state, with a statewide poll at the end of April showing more voters opposed than in favor. Durham County, where the Braeburn facility is scheduled to be built, is a community that opposes the law, including the local chamber of commerce.

“We proudly stand with the growing list of national and local businesses who have spoken out against the injustice of HB2 and in favor of LGBT rights,” says Braeburn’s president Behshad Sheldon in a company statement. “We seriously considered moving our manufacturing facility to another state to send a clear message about the depth of our commitment.  Ultimately, however, we concluded that abandoning Braeburn’s job creation plans in Durham County would unfairly penalize a community that shares Braeburn’s commitment to equality.”

The statement says Sheldon met with the state’s governor Pat McCrory who supports HB2 and Attorney General Roy Cooper, who shares the company’s view that HB2 is unjust and needs to be overturned. Cooper’s advice prevailed that the company could have more influence on the subject if it stayed in North Carolina.

Sheldon says the company plans to use its influence to overturn the law, saying the company “will advocate for progressive public policy, do our part to help overturn HB2, and support those who share our commitments to diversity and non-discrimination.” Sheldon adds that “Battling stigma is central to our mission as we develop medicines for people with opioid addiction, we cannot and will not support stigmatization of any member of our society.”

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