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Biotech, University Partner on Mammal Hibernation Genomics

13-lined ground squirrel

13-lined ground squirrel (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Flickr)

31 Mar. 2022. A biotechnology company discovering new drugs based on animal genomics is partnering with a university lab on research in mammal hibernation and adaption. Fauna Bio in Emeryville, California is funding a $500,000 research program at University of Wisconsin in Oshkosh to study a species of squirrel that avoids health problems during hibernation.

Fauna Bio is a four year-old enterprise founded by researchers in veterinary medicine, genetics, and computational biology. The company identifies human drug targets from biological processes that enable other mammals to survive under extreme conditions, particularly hibernation. Fauna Bio says these processes offer clues for drugs to address chronic disorders affecting large populations, such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease. Science & Enterprise reported on the company’s seed round in Sept. 2021 raising $9 million.

Fauna Bio says it maintains the world’s largest biobank of hibernating animals with genetic, epigenetic, and proteomic data on some 260 species. The company says its process first identifies targets for these protective mechanisms in hibernation, followed by a comparative analysis with computational tools across other species to find pathways most likely to translate to human biology. In January, Fauna Bio announced a collaboration with global drug maker Novo Nordisk to discover new therapies for obesity.

Survives heart attacks and strokes

A particular mammal of interest to Fauna Bio is the 13-lined ground squirrel or Spermophilus tridecemlineatus found in the upper Midwest. According to the company, this gopher-like rodent prepares for its six-month hibernation in the fall and winter by doubling its normal summer weight. In addition, the squirrel’s blood becomes fatty and reduces its flow during hibernation, yet the animal is still able to survive multiple heart attacks and strokes.

Dana Merriman, an emeritus professor of biology at UW-Oshkosh started a breeding colony of 13-lined ground squirrels in 2003, which she still maintains for the university. It’s believed to be the only colony of these squirrels in captivity. Fauna Bio is partnering with UW-Oshkosh researchers to identify genes that protect these mammals from diseases that afflict a large proportion of humans, as models for future therapeutics. The collaboration is also expected to support local seminars and internships to encourage more researchers to study animal genomes as models for regeneration and disease resistance.

Benjamin Sajdak, Fauna Bio’s director of emerging animal models says in a company statement released through Cision that many studies with animals using mice and rats as models “often fail because these animals do not accurately recapitulate human disease states. But there is enormous potential in studying animal models with natural disease resistance as an alternative strategy to treatment discovery.” Sajdak is also an adjunct biology professor at UW-Oshkosh.

“With the ability to prospectively design studies and collect samples at precise physiological time-points,” notes Fauna Bio co-founder and chief scientist Katharine Grabek, “the collaboration with UW-Oshkosh will enrich and enhance our own internal biobank datasets and no doubt lead to more novel insights on how species like the 13-lined ground squirrel resist developing human pathologies. This will help us develop more therapeutic programs and ultimately treat human diseases.”

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