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Biotech, NIH Partner on Opioid Alternative Discovery

Syringe, pills, capsules

(Arek Socha, Pixabay)

1 May 2019. A company creating human tissue samples from stem cells is partnering with National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, or NCATS, to help find new alternatives to opioid drugs. The collaboration brings together Stemonix Inc. in Maple Grove, Minnesota with NCATS, a division of National Institutes of Health, under an NIH program to counter the current opioid epidemic.

In April 2018, NIH started the Helping to End Addiction Long-term, or HEAL, initiative to find better science-based solutions to the nation’s continuing opioid addiction crisis. This public health emergency results from abuse of prescription opioid pain drugs, as well as heroin and fentanyl sold on the street. Overdose deaths from these drugs this year number more than 130 per day, according to National Institute on Drug Abuse. A report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in July 2017 spells out the full scope of the crisis beyond overdose deaths, with some 2 million Americans age 12 and older addicted to prescription opioid drugs and another 600,000 addicted to heroin.

Stemonix develops human tissue samples cultured from induced pluripotent stem cells, also known as adult stem cells, since they’re derived from existing human tissue and not from embryos. Adult stem cells from individuals are genetically altered and cultured in the lab, then induced to differentiate, or transform, into various types of cells and tissue that can replace damaged counterparts in the body, or as in this case, for drug testing.

The company matures and grows its tissue samples into testing plates for high-speed discovery or toxicity testing of new drugs. Stemonix offers stem cell-derived testing plates, called micro-organs, with two- and three-dimensional brain tissues and nerve cell collections, as well as heart tissue samples and cells. These micro-organs, says the company, perform many of the same functions as full-scale organs, such as sending neurotransmitters across synapses in brain cells, or heart tissue cells beating rhythmically.

Stemonix is collaborating with NCATS under the HEAL program to identify characteristic indicators of opioid responses in brain cells to screen for promising drug candidates and detect more troublesome compounds. Under its call for collaboration proposals, NCATS specifically requested human cell-based screening platforms that include sensory or pain neurons derived from human induced pluripotent stem cells.

The collaboration calls for each party — Stemonix and NCATS — to provide in-kind facilities and services, with the value of those services not disclosed. For this project, Stemonix is providing its 3-D brain micro-organs, called microBrain 3D, to screen nerve cell signaling compounds and opioid drugs for identifying signature responses for opioids. These opioid signatures can then be used to identify potentially addictive compounds, as well as find less- or non-addictive alternatives to opioids.

“This collaboration,” says Ping Yeh, co-founder and CEO of Stemonix in a company statement, “represents a new approach to the problem by utilizing human models earlier in pain research. Therefore, this is an ideal application for microBrain 3D, which brings human biology to high-throughput drug screening for efficacy and toxicity in order to bring safer and more effective drugs to patients more quickly.”

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