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Univ. Licenses Therapeutic Hibernation Technology

Arctic ground squirrel

Arctic ground squirrel (Alex Vanderstuyf, National Park Service)

3 Feb. 2020. University of Alaska is licensing research lab discoveries to a spin-off company to develop techniques to achieve a hibernation-type state in humans. The company, BeCool Pharmaceuticals LLC in Fairbanks, is gaining an exclusive license to a drug candidate discovered by biochemistry professor Kelly Drew and colleagues at the university’s Fairbanks campus, and the founder of the company.

Drew’s lab at Alaska-Fairbanks studies biology related to hibernation, particularly mammals native to the region, such as the Arctic ground squirrel. These mammals spend seven to eight months in hibernation, and during this period, their body temperatures drop to below freezing, the lowest body temperature ever measured in mammals. This low temperature suppresses the animals’ metabolism and slows other physiological functions during hibernation.

Reducing body temperatures can have therapeutic effects for people with cardiac arrest, spinal cord injury, or stroke where oxygen flow to the brain is impaired. A therapy for these brain injuries is called targeted temperature management that lowers patients’ body temperatures to 32 to 36 degrees C, for patients that can withstand this temperature without complications. In many patients, however, the low temperatures induce shivering and metabolic stress, which limits the utility of targeted temperature management despite its promise.

Research by Drew and colleagues with Arctic ground squirrels identified proteins that help induce hibernation and reduce their metabolism. Further studies in the Drew lab show stimulating central nervous system A1 adenosine receptors could induce a hibernation-like state, including lowering their metabolism as well as inhibit shivering, in lab rodents other than squirrels. The lab subsequently discovered an agonist for stimulating A1 adenosine receptors called N cyclohexyl adenosine, or CHA and found optimal levels for administering the compound to lab animals. The researchers also found a related compound, p sulfophenyl theophylline, or SPT, that suppresses the same receptors, for use as an antidote to take patients out of a hibernating state.

The university filed for a patent on the technology, which the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office awarded in October 2018. During this time, Drew formed BeCool Pharmaceuticals, and received a $299,000 Small Business Technology Transfer award from National Institutes of Health to prove the technical feasibility  of the process. Small Business Technology Transfer grants are collaborations between a start-up business and university lab, in this case BeCool and the Drew lab at Alaska-Fairbanks.

BeCool Pharmaceuticals now received an exclusive license to the technology from University of Alaska-Fairbanks, or UAF, to develop a drug candidate code-named BCP-019 for patients with cardiac arrest, for clinical trials and commercialization. BCP-019 is a combination of two compounds that lowers body temperature in patients, while inducing a hibernation state with suppressed metabolism. Financial details of the licensing agreement were not disclosed.

“This is an area my laboratory at UAF has studied for several years with our first breakthrough published in 2011,” says Drew in a company statement released through PR Newswire. She adds, “This is a first step towards achieving true human hibernation.”

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