Thursday, January 4, 2001
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Posted on: Thursday, January 4, 2001

Island biotech makes key acquisition

By John Duchemin
Advertiser Staff Writer

A University of Hawai
i professor’s unique collection of 2,000 specimens of cyanobacteria is now in the hands of local biotechnology company Aquasearch Inc., which wants to develop the collection into a living breeding ground for organic chemicals that could produce disease-fighting drugs.

Aquasearch yesterday signed a contract with the university to maintain chemistry professor Richard Moore’s cyanobacteria specimens, which have produced two drugs now being tested against cancer, in exchange for the right to commercialize — cultivate, develop, patent, license and sell — any valuable findings.

The five-year contract requires Aquasearch to finance Moore’s research laboratory and to pay the university royalties from any resulting profits. The company would not disclose how much it would pay to maintain the lab. Aquasearch also plans to hire several researchers to help Moore, who said he plans to retire in several years.

Aquasearch officials said the deal could be worth millions of dollars to the university and the fledgling company, which specializes in growing single-celled algae to produce valuable chemicals. The same process could be applied to produce massive quantities of the UH cyanobacteria specimens, Aquasearch officials said.

Moore said the prospects of finding effective compounds in his cyanobacteria collection are chancy, but Aquasearch officials were optimistic. The collection has already produced 170 unique chemicals that are bioactive — indicating the compounds may help fight diseases.

"Drug discovery is all about probability," said Michael Cushman, vice president of research and development at Aquasearch. "Two compounds in the UH collection are active against cancer. We believe there is a high probability that some of the remaining dozens of compounds ... will be active against other diseases."

The deal represents new ground for Aquasearch, which previously has concentrated on producing astaxanthin, an algae-derived, over-the-counter dietary supplement that is marketed for both human and livestock use.

Profits anticipated

Aquasearch has only sold astaxanthin for nine months, but its key advantage has been a patented, computer-controlled growth module that can produce massive quantities of the algae that makes astaxanthin. Company founder Mark Huntley said Aquasearch may become profitable later this year, thanks to growing sales.

With the UH collection of cyanobacteria — like algae, one-celled life forms that produce energy from photosynthesis — Aquasearch plans to transform itself into a producer of patented prescription drugs, which are far harder to develop but could prove more profitable than astaxanthin.

"The UH collection is remarkable because almost all the bioactive compounds are completely new to science," said Huntley, Aquasearch chairman. "New compounds are the only ones worth developing into drugs, because they are patentable."

One of the bioactive compounds Moore and his colleagues discovered is anti-cancer drug cryptophycin, which is now in clinical trials on human subjects. Another substance also appears to be effective as an anti-tumor drug, and has also entered human clinical trials.

University officials described Moore’s collection as unique.

"Back in the 1970s, when we started our work, we found one — only one — chemical substance that had been isolated and identified structurally (from cyanobacteria)," Moore said. "That told us no one had really looked at these organisms to see if there was anything useful in them."

National treasure’

With support from the National Cancer Institute, Moore collected samples from around the world, eventually building a compendium that Carl-Wilhelm Vogel, director of the university’s Cancer Research Center of Hawaii, called a "national treasure."

The gathering process itself will probably never be repeated, because of new international agreements on intellectual property rights, said Alan Teramura, vice president for research at the university.

While screened for cancer, the collection’s bioactive compounds have not been seriously tested on anything else — meaning there’s some chance they could produce drugs to combat other problems, observers said.

Those chances may not be high — Moore estimated that one in several hundred thousand chemical compounds makes it through clinical trials. But the fact that the UH collection produced even two potential anti-cancer drugs means it deserves a close look, Moore said.

Aquasearch officials said Moore’s collection is potentially worth millions of dollars even if it never produces an effective drug. The work already done by Moore usually costs millions of dollars, Aquasearch founder Huntley said.

Huntley said his company this year will begin "pre-clinical" trials on laboratory animals. Pre-clinical trials are used to weed out drugs that are poisonous or ineffective, and are the precursors to clinical trials on humans, which can eventually lead to FDA-approved prescription drugs.

Huntley said pharmaceutical companies would pay tens of millions of dollars for any drug that succeeds in pre-clinical trials.

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