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Small Business Grant Awarded for Bone Marrow Protection Drug

Norman Sharpless (UNC Chapel Hill)

Norman Sharpless (UNC Chapel Hill)

A company in Chapel Hill, North Carolina has received a $3 million grant from NIH to commercialize a therapy to protect bone marrow in cancer patients against damage from chemo and radiation therapy. G-Zero Therapeutics received the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

The award to G-Zero Therapeutics will fund commercialization of technology developed by University of North Carolina medical professor Norman Sharpless (pictured right) to protect patients from cellular damage caused by radiation or cancer chemotherapy. Sharpless’s lab tests drugs to inhibit enzymes involved in cell division, with some drugs successful in causing specific groups of bone marrow cells to temporarily stop dividing.

This ability to stop cells from dividing — known as pharmacological quiescence or PQ — can increase resistance to radiation and chemotherapy that damage a cell’s DNA. Lab tests on mice have shown mice can be protected from lethal doses of radiation or chemotherapy with PQ agents. That protection even extends to blood cells, which are normally susceptible to the toxicity of radiation or chemotherapy.

The most important acute side effect of chemotherapy or radiation poisoning is damage to the bone marrow, which produces all the normal blood cells. Thus, a high dose of chemotherapy or radiation can lead to low blood counts of red cells, platelets and white blood cells, which in some cases can be fatal.  No effective therapy exists to mitigate bone marrow toxicity of radiation when given after exposure, although a few drugs that will decrease toxicity when given before exposure to radiation.

The technology from the Sharpless lab has been licensed to G-Zero Therapeutics, which will use this new SBIR funding to take these discoveries to market. The award — called a phase 2 grant — will fund commercialization of the lab research. An earlier (phase 1) award demonstrated the scientific and economic feasibility of the technology.

With the phase 2 funding G-Zero, founded in 2008, will employ four people and several additional contractors in North Carolina’s research triangle region to develop the experimental compounds into drugs that can be manufactured consistently and on a larger scale. The following step is expected to be an application to the Food and Drug Administration for approval to test the drugs in humans.

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