NCBiotech Awards $1.4 Million in Grants, Loans in Latest Quarter

The North Carolina Biotechnology Center awarded 17 grants and loans totaling more than $1.4 million to universities, biosciences companies and other entities in the second quarter of its fiscal year.

The awards, made in October, November and December 2020, will support life sciences research, technology commercialization and entrepreneurship throughout North Carolina. The funding will also help universities and companies attract follow-on funding from other sources.

Company loans

Four biosciences companies received Small Business Research Loans totaling $850,000 to advance their research, product development and commercial viability.

  • Apie Therapeutics, a Cary-based spinout of RTI International, received $250,000 to develop apelin receptor agonist drug candidates that target fibrotic diseases. The company’s initial indication will be idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), a progressive and fatal lung disease. Apie will use the loan funds to support three Investigational New Drug-enabling studies to progress its orally active preclinical lead candidate APT-101 to treat IPF.  
  • Avior Bio of Holly Springs received $250,000 to establish a GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) manufacturing capability to produce clinical material for Phase 2 clinical trials of its lead drug candidate for treating patients with chronic liver disease who suffer from pruritus, or chronic itch. Previously NCBiotech awarded Avior a loan that supported completion of first-in-human clinical trials for the therapy. 
  • CasTag Biosciences of Durham received $250,000 to validate a new process to rapidly expand its catalog of reagent kits that modify proteins using a new CRISPR/Cas9-based gene editing approach. This scalable and flexible method allows scientists to study proteins in vitro and in vivo at an unprecedented rate. The company secured its first sales in 2019, and the loan will support technology advancement into the gene-edited cell line market.
  • Drive Therapeutics of Research Triangle Park received $100,000 to develop a novel nucleic acid therapy to block angiogenesis, inflammation and fibrosis underlying retinal disease. Drive will use the loan funds to optimize and characterize lead-candidate aptomers to treat wet age-related macular degeneration and diabetic macular edema retinal diseases.

Portfolio companies raise $2 billion

Nine biosciences companies that previously received loans from the Biotech Center raised more than $2.023 billion in follow-on funding from other sources in the second quarter, according to research by the Biotech Center’s Life Science Intelligence staff.

Yes, that’s billion with a “b.”

Accounting for most of that whopping amount was Asklepios BioPharmaceutical (AskBio), a gene therapy platform company in Research Triangle Park that was acquired by multinational pharmaceutical giant Bayer for $2 billion upfront plus up to $2 billion more in potential milestone payments.

The acquisition was the third-largest buyout of a home-grown North Carolina biosciences company, trailing Salix’s acquisition by Valeant in 2015 for $11 billion and Quintiles’ acquisition by IMS Health in 2016 for $8.9 billion, according to the Biotech Center’s Life Science Intelligence group. 

AskBio was spun out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 20 years ago by R. Jude Samulski, Ph.D., and AskBio’s CEO -- entrepreneur and attorney Sheila Mikhail.

Early work by Samulski at AskBio and related entities was supported by grants and loans from the Biotechnology Center totaling about $1 million. The support included a $250,000 grant that helped recruit Samulski to UNC’s School of Medicine from the University of Pittsburgh in 1993. He directed UNC’s Gene Therapy Center for 25 years.

Eight other companies previously funded by NCBiotech collectively raised more than $23 million from other sources during the quarter.

Leading the way was Locus Biosciences, which raised $7.5 million in debt financing, Advanced Chemotherapy Technologies, which raised $5.5 million in venture capital; IMMvention Therapeutix, which raised $3.9 million in venture capital; and Emergo Therapeutics, which raised $3.5 million in venture capital.

University grants

Seven universities received 10 grants totaling $555,758 during the second quarter to advance biosciences research. The awards were made through two programs: FLASH Grants, which support creative ideas that show early indications of commercial potential, and Translational Research Grants, which fund projects that explore potential commercial applications or initiate the early commercial development of university-held life sciences inventions. 

Universities received six FLASH Grants totaling $119,358, all of them focused on potential solutions to the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • East Carolina University received $20,000 to investigate a new method of delivering therapeutic molecules directly into the airways of COVID-19 patients.
  • North Carolina State University (NC State) received $20,000 to develop an inexpensive, shelf-stable, orally administered COVID-19 vaccine candidate that can be stored at room temperature.
  • NC State received $20,000 to develop nitric oxide as a potentially potent therapeutic molecule against COVID-19 infections through stabilization by, and release from, graphene molecules.
  • NC State received $20,000 to develop a new method of increasing the efficacy of DNA vaccine administration for COVID-19 that uses tiny, ultra-precise, electrical pulses.
  • UNC-CH received $20,000 to develop an assay to potentially predict severity of COVID-19 infections and disease course using models of vascular cells and tissues.
  • The University of North Carolina Charlotte received $19,358 to develop a novel anti-viral therapeutic that binds the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein to treat COVID-19.

Universities received four Translational Research Grants totaling $436,400:

  • Duke received $110,000 to develop a novel mesh material that will reduce post-surgical tissue adhesions in the treatment of hernias.
  • NC State received $110,000 to validate the safety and efficacy of a novel treatment that uses electric fields to kill tumors and induce a positive immune response against solid cancer tumors.
  • The University of North Carolina Greensboro received $106,400 to construct and test a knee arthrometer that accurately measures the flexibility and looseness of knee ligaments to assess patient injury and response to treatment of knee injuries.
  • Wake Forest University received $110,000 to develop cancer immunotherapies that regulate TREX1, an enzyme that affects immune system activation.

Event grants

Two universities and one nonprofit organization received Biotechnology Event Sponsorships totaling $5,735 for life sciences-focused events held primarily for a North Carolina audience: 

  • Lenoir-Rhyne University received $735 to host the 117th annual meeting of the North Carolina Academy of Science, a virtual event on March 12-13, 2021.  The event will feature scientific research presentations, as well as panels, addresses and workshops. Attendees will include members and friends of the scientific community from across the state.
  • The Organic Growers School of Asheville received $2,000 to host a virtual Spring Conference offering workshops on organic growing and sustainable living. 
  • UNC-CH received $3,000 to host the annual research retreat for the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics. The virtual event, scheduled for March 26, 2021, will include oral and poster presentations from students and postdoctoral researchers as well as mentorship activities. Cigall Kadoch, Ph.D., from the Harvard Medical School’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, will give the keynote lecture.
Barry Teater, NCBiotech Writer
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