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Biotech firm has strokes, Alzheimer's in its sights

Madison, Wis. - While much of the attention paid to Quincy Bioscience centers on the compound it is developing from jellyfish, it is the company's emerging business model that may put other medical treatments 25,000 leagues under the sea.

Quincy Bioscience is based in Madison's University Research Park, but it derives its research support from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, making it a virtual poster child for the "IQ Corridor" that is supposed to link Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, and the Twin Cities.

Quincy's contribution to the IQ quotient is the development of a compound from a jellyfish protein to treat neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Disease. The company aims to destroy, or at least wound, a series of these degenerative diseases one condition at a time - starting with strokes.

The company, established in 2004, has received notice in the national press, and was the object of attention during the 2006 BIO Conference in Chicago. "They were one of Wisconsin's stars at BIO, and that resulted in them getting some national exposure for their idea, so now others have seen the potential for this idea," said Jim Leonhart, executive director of the Wisconsin Biotechnology and Medical Device Association. "We're encouraged about the progress they're making for just becoming an entity two years ago."

Can do
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The side of Mark Underwood's business card reads, "It can be done." Given the encouraging lab results thus far of a calcium-binding protein designed to treat the consequences of calcium ion loss in the brain, the president of Quincy Bioscience may be well on his way to validating that belief.

Underwood, who is testing the compound with UW-Milwaukee Assistant Professor James Moyer, said lab results thus far indicate the protein, aequorin, is much more "neuroprotective" than existing treatments. According to Underwood, aequorin has helped anywhere from 28 to 45 percent of brain cells survive, without toxicity, after being subjected to the lab equivalent of a stroke.

Ninety-nine percent of the body's calcium is contained in the bones; the rest is in blood cells and the central-nervous system. Calcium-binding proteins prevent an excess accumulation of inter-cellular calcium, which excites brain cells and causes them to short circuit. Aequorin essentially acts as a surge protector, returning cells to their natural chemistry and function.

Diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's are linked to a loss of calcium-binding proteins that protect nerve cells, a natural process of aging. For those who are susceptible to Alzheimer's or Parkinson's, that loss is much more pronounced.

"All of the cells in your body are programmed to die," Underwood explained. "This is one way in which they do."

Business modeling

Quincy Bioscience, which is owned by West Bend businessman Mike Beaman, employs five people in its Madison office and another five in its Milwaukee lab. It is the sister of Quincy Resource Group, a Jackson, Wis. packaging company that, in Underwood's words, essentially "incubated" Quincy Bioscience in its beginning stages.

Since then, Quincy Bioscience has received ample support from angel investors after having been certified as a qualified business venture under the state's Act 255 Angel Investment Tax Credit Program, which provides tax credits to angel investors that fund qualified Wisconsin companies.

Underwood declined to discuss the amount and source of equity financing received by Quincy Biosciences, but he has no problem discussing the role future funding will play.

The company expects to have a pharmaceutical product on the market in seven years. It will seek to raise private equity to develop aequorin-based therapies for each disease it targets, starting with strokes and followed (not necessarily in this order) by Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Huntington's, and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

Most of Quincy's research is focused in the hippocampus of the brain, where short-term memory is formed and ingrained, but Underwood believes the brain is one place where location doesn't matter - hence the initial emphasis on strokes, which can affect any part of the brain that blood flows to. "If you have something that can help heal a cut on your skin, does it matter whether the cut is on your leg or your arm?" he asked. "We're going to focus on the mechanism that caused the brain cells to die."

An estimated 700,000 Americans suffer new or recurring strokes each year, while the number of Alzheimer's patients is roughly 4.5 million and the number who suffer from Parkinson's is about 1.5 million. Quincy intends to develop a drug that can be administered immediately after a stroke event, perhaps as soon as patients are being transported to the hospital.

With each condition, the company will not only look for investors for the specific aequorin indication, it will need collaborators. "The goal for us is to work with a larger entity with a specific disease interest," Underwood said, "so that we'll have a product that goes into their pipeline."

Ironically, the protein that might someday come to the rescue has been used as a toxicity indicator in scientific research for 40 years, but until now it has never been investigated for its therapeutic qualities. To produce it in the necessary quantities for medicine, the aequorin cells must be reproduced, a process that expresses the protein and is part of Quincy's intellectual property portfolio.

IQ visions

Quincy's science and the business model may take it farther than most biotechs, but it's the Milwaukee-Madison connection that intrigues Leonhart and others that envision a robust IQ Corridor. "It kind of shows that the research in this state can be created anywhere and be successfully planted elsewhere," he said.

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