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Small Biz Grant Funds Hibernating Animal Drug Discovery

Brown bear

(Becca, Unsplash, https://unsplash.com/photos/_r6w0R6SueQ)

4 Mar. 2021. A company identifying drug targets from genetic processes in hibernating animals is receiving an NIH grant to advance its technology for heart disease. Fauna Bio, a three year-old enterprise in Berkeley, California, is receiving a one-year $373,434 award from National Human Genome Research Institute, or NHGRI, part of National Institutes of Health.

Fauna Bio identifies pharmaceutical targets in genes of hibernating mammals that allow their biological processes to be switched off and on. These genes, says the company, provide protection to hibernating animals from similar processes that would cause serious disease or injury to humans. Since humans share the vast majority of their genetics with other mammals, often 90 percent or more, a systematic investigation of genetic processes that protect hibernating animals can offer new targets for drugs to treat several types of diseases.

For example, prior to hibernation, animals become obese and insulin resistant, then cease all food intake during hibernation. Also, hibernating animals remain sedentary for several months, yet do not suffer bone loss or muscle atrophy. And, neurons or nerve cells in the brains of hibernating animals form tau protein plaques as in Alzheimer’s disease in humans and their synapses lose connectivity, yet these animals do not suffer comparable brain damage in humans.

Fauna Bio investigates genetic processes that protect hibernating animals and looks for comparable or translatable genes in the human genome that could be switched on or off to protect against their injurious effects. The company uses computational tools, including deep machine learning, to identify drug chemistries most likely to achieve the desired outcomes.

Identify protections against heart attack or stroke

The NHGRI grant supports further development of Fauna Bio’s technology overall, but focusing on genetic properties of hibernating animals that protect against injury from ischemia and reperfusion events, when blood flow to tissues is interrupted and then restored. In hibernating animals, ischemia and reperfusion can occur 20 times or more during the animal’s hibernation, yet in humans those events result in serious health issues, including heart attack or stroke.

In the NHGRI project, Fauna Bio plans to validate targets from hibernating species that protect against ischemia and reperfusion events. The company says it already identified two compounds that could help reduce damage to people suffering heart attacks.

Ashley Zehnder, co-founder and CEO of Fauna Bio, says in a company statement released through Cision that “given that we share 90 percent of our genes with other mammals, it is important to look outside our own species to find new answers for the betterment of human health.” Zehnder adds, “This grant from the NIH means that they see a direct link between the genes of humans and animals, and its value for developing meaningful therapeutics for a variety of complex diseases currently with no viable treatment options.”

In this project, the company is partnering with the Monarch Initiative, a data and analytic platform that identifies shared traits among animal species and connects those traits to genomic properties. That initiative aims to find better animal models for human disease, and offers algorithms and other computational tools to support its work.

The award is a Small Business Technology Transfer or STTR grant made under NIH’s small business programs that set aside a part of the agency’s research funding for U.S.-based and owned companies. STTR grants support collaborative industry-academic research projects.

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