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Mithridion wins grants for Alzheimer's research

Madison, Wis. - Mithridion, Inc., a biopharmaceutical startup that is developing drugs to disrupt the progress of Alzheimer's disease, has secured $296,800 in federal grants to evaluate tests for drug candidates.

The twin grants, awarded by the National Institute on Aging, a branch of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, will be used to prove the feasibility of the tests. If successful, the company will apply for the next phase of NIH small business funding to win grants in excess of $750,000.

"If you prove feasibility, Phase II grants tend to have a relatively high likelihood of success," said Trevor Twose, founder and CEO of Mithridion.

The first grant, a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant, allows Mithridion to conduct in-house work. Meanwhile, the second grant, a Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grant is collaborative, and will allow Mithridion to retain professor Jeffrey Johnson and his laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Pharmacy for the purpose of providing animal testing and advanced microscopy.

Johnson, one of Mithridion's chief scientific advisors, provides input into the experimental setup of these studies, and his lab is used to examine brain cells of Alzheimer's-infected mice under high-power microscopes.
"Microscopes can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, so by having this collaborative research agreement, Mithridion can do some of these high-end microscopic things they couldn't do in the start-up phase they're at now," Johnson said.

The goal is to identify a drug candidate based on small-molecule drug leads discovered at the UW-Madison School of Pharmacy. These drug leads have the potential to work in vivo (in the living body), activating protective genetic pathways in the brain that might shield neurons from Amyloid beta, the primary toxin in Alzheimers.

"The advantage of small molecules is that they can be synthesized by chemical means, they can be accurately analyzed, they are relatively low cost for production, and they have a very well-trodden path for getting Food and Drug Administration approval," Twose said.

"With the technologies we will develop with these grants, we will be able to see how much the genes are activated by drug candidates. The best candidates will give the greatest activation of the genes," he explained.

Johnson added that in order to modify the progression of the disease, an effective drug must block toxicity and pass into the central-nervous system by crossing the "blood-brain barrier."

Value validation

To validate the drug leads, Mithridion will treat cells with a variety of drug candidates and measure the resulting gene activation. Later, the company, which won the 2005 Governor's Business Plan Contest, hopes to examine the differences between candidates and select the best one for eventual commercialization.

Earlier this year, Mithridion received the first portion of an anticipated $1.6 million in first-round equity funding, which was financed by Rosetta Partners, LLC, of Lake Forest, Ill., and Wisconsin Investment Partners, a Madison-based angel network. Located at University Research Park, its technology is licensed by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, and it expects to add six employees this year.

Even with its existing equity resources, Mithridion would not be able to perform these new tests, but the SBIR and STTR grants allow it to "reach out" to newer technologies, Twose said. Since the funding is provided by the federal government, the company is able to keep its intellectual property.

"That's a major advantage and it really stimulates innovation," Twose said. "These grants are really the lifeblood of many, many biotech companies."

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