North Carolina Central University researchers will be moving forward with a potential new drug to treat obesity, Type II diabetes and other metabolic diseases with help from a $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.
The award from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases will allow NCCU Associate Professor Jonathan Sexton, Ph.D., and a team of university researchers to further develop molecules that target and activate a protein involved in energy metabolism known as AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK).
“A drug that can activate AMPK will induce many of the positive benefits associated with physical activity, effectively acting as ‘exercise in a pill,’” said Sexton, who works at the university’s Biomanufacturing Research Institute and Technology Enterprise (BRITE). “It stimulates fatty acid oxidation and causes your metabolism to switch to burning fat.”
Harnessing the protein’s energy-regulating effects on the body could provide an effective treatment for millions of people with obesity, Type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease and other metabolic disorders. Potentially a “high reward” project, the project comes with a fair amount of risk, as well, Sexton said.
“Several large pharmaceutical companies have tried similar approaches and failed,” he added.
However, a new research technique developed in Sexton’s laboratory has delivered promising results. The novel technique was recently patented, and Curl Bio LLC, a startup biotechnology company, was recently founded by Sexton and Jay Brenman, a professor at UNC Chapel Hill, to further develop this technology.
“In my academic lab, we do drug discovery,” Sexton said. “Since there’s little university funding for drug development, we needed Curl Bio to further this technology into human clinical trials. We have taken this university-owned technology, filed patents to protect the intellectual property, and with funding from the NIH, we will develop these molecules into drugs for obesity and diabetes.”
If the next phase of research is successful, Curl Bio is expected to embark on phase-I clinical trials.
“We will get some early safety data to help de-risk our small molecules and then seek partnership with one of the big pharmaceutical companies to help bring this new drug to market,” Sexton said. “Obesity and Type 2 diabetes is an enormous burden on our healthcare system, and the FDA regulatory environment surrounding new drugs for these diseases is so stringent that a small company like Curl Bio will need to partner with big pharma in order to get a small molecule through clinical trials.”
“If we are successful in addressing the obesity epidemic, an unmet medical need, it would generate a significant financial return,” Sexton said.
As owner of the technology, NCCU stands to benefit financially from success of the drug’s development.
“The NCCU-Curl Bio partnership is an outgrowth of the university’s push to form start-up companies to take innovative university research to market,” according to Undi Hoffler, Ph.D., director, Research Compliance and Technology Transfer.
“At NCCU, researchers have a lot of technologies with significant commercialization potential,” Sexton added. “We are establishing a culture of innovation that will assist the university while imparting entrepreneurial spirit on our students. It’s a win-win for everybody.”