The shark, it turns out, has an immune system worthy of human envy. Biotech startup Ossianix
, located at the University City Science Center
, is developing groundbreaking immune system treatments based on antibodies found specifically in the shark. "In terms of evolutionary biology, the shark has one of the the simplest immune systems. It is a much smaller antibody structure than in humans, but still very potent," says Ossianix founder and CEO Frank Walsh. "You can engineer that structure to attack a whole variety of pathologies."
Ossianix just announced a strategic investment by global pharmaceutical giant H. Lundbeck A/S
in the form of a Convertible Promissory Note. While the exact dollar amount has not been disclosed, Walsh says the investment will cover the next three years in the life of his very early stage research company. Ossianix hopes to grow to 10 employees by the end of 2012. Walsh is also seeking standard funding from several pharmaceuticals.
After leaving Wyeth following its takeover by Pfizer, Walsh decided to start his own company, naming it after Ossian, a mythological Celtic figure. Says Walsh, "When you start a company, you can come up with a name aligned with the technology, or something unaligned so if you change strategic direction, you don't have to change the name."
The product Ossianix hopes to generate will be made entirely of synthetic compounds based on the naturally occurring structures in the shark. Walsh reports that while there have been a number of academic studies focusing on shark antibodies, Ossianix is the only biotech pursuing the application from a therapeutic point of view.
The shark based antibody is applicable to a variety of diseases, says Walsh, and initial research is two areas. "The first is being able to deliver antibodies to the brain in much higher concentrations than can be achieved by current technologies. There's a lot of interest in the pharmaceutical industry to attack the processes in Alzheimer's, MS and Parkinson's disease. Central nervous system disorders are a major area of focus," says Walsh. The second area is in ALS research, creating a strategy to build muscle to combat the loss of power associated with the ailment also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
As far as larger trends in pharmaceutical research, Walsh says that for the first time in decades, R&D spending at pharmaceuticals like Pfizer is on the decrease. As a result, the big players are becoming much more dependent on outside companies for early innovation. "For me, that's one of the exciting things about starting Ossianix, building a credible small company in that early space."
: Frank Walsh, Ossianix
: Sue Spolan