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Start-Up Company Licenses University Stroke Drug Research

CT scan of stroke victim's brain (National Library of Medicine)

CT scan of stroke victim’s brain (National Library of Medicine)

10 March 2014. Zocere Inc. in Albuquerque, New Mexico is licensing a neurological protein from University of New Mexico for development into a drug to protect ischemic stroke victims from extensive brain damage. Financial terms of the deal with the university’s technology transfer office were not disclosed.

Nearly 800,000 people in the U.S. have a stroke each year, causing some 130,000 deaths. About 87 percent of strokes are ischemic strokes, caused by a clot blocking blood flow to the brain. The current standard of care for ischemic strokes are tissue plasminogen activators, given intravenously to dissolve the clots. To be effective, tissue plasminogen activators, such as Activase made by Genentech, must be given within three hours of the onset of stroke symptoms, a short window for administering the treatment.

Zocere, founded last year as Tyrosine Pharma, is licensing the research of New Mexico neurologist Surojit Paul, a faculty member in the university’s health sciences center. Paul studies neurological phenomena connected to excitotoxicity, a condition resulting from overstimulation of glutamate, a signalling chemical involved in many brain functions. Excitotoxicity is linked to several serious neurological disorders, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease), traumatic brain injury, and ischemic stroke.

Much of Paul’s work is focused on N-Methyl-D-aspartate or NMDA receptors for glutamate signals that allow excessive levels of calcium to enter brain cells, resulting in damage to those cells. His studies led to development of a protein, STriatal Enriched Phosphatase or Step, that regulates NMDA receptors and thus has potential for limiting damage to brain cells.

Step, says Zocere, is the basis for a peptide made in the lab from engineered bacteria and then purified. The peptide derived from Step can permeate cells, cross the blood-brain barrier, and resist degradation. The company says tests on lab animals with induced stroke show intravenous injections with the Step peptide can reduce brain damage. 

Zocere’s plans to conduct further preclinical research on the Step peptide, but is seeking partners in the pharmaceutical industry for clinical development and regulatory approvals.

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