It has become easy to take for granted the treatments we use to overcome illnesses and save lives. But behind the medications that combat infections, ward off depression, and manage hypertension are teams of scientists, doctors, and entrepreneurs who in many cases devoted years to designing, developing, and testing the very drugs that improve our quality of life, increase our longevity, and thus shape the world we live in. Portland-based Elex Biotech is composed of just such a team, and their goal is to address the most pressing public health crisis of the day: the growing prevalence of heart failure and related cardiovascular diseases.
Heart failure is a condition in which the heart cannot pump enough blood to support the body’s needs. Associated with heart failure, arrhythmias, or abnormal heart rates, originating in the ventricles, such as ventricular tachycardia, claim nearly 400,000 lives a year at a cost of roughly $34.4 billion. While these statistics from the American Heart Association (AHA) are sobering, the projection from the AHA that by 2030 instances of heart failure will increase 25 percent to over 10 million people in the US alone is alarming at best. Working to ameliorate this coming health disaster, Elex Biotech is striving to develop drugs to treat heart failure and ventricular arrhythmias.
“There are several therapies that are commonly used,” Dr. Jonathan Abramson, Professor of Physics at Portland State University and Elex Biotech co-founder, recently said. “Cardiologists tend to prescribe a combination of drugs that improve heart function, but are far from ideal. At Elex Biotech we have focused our efforts on targeting the sarcoplasmic reticulum, which controls the calcium concentration within the cells and the contractile state of the heart muscle cell. Research has shown that our new drugs normalize calcium levels within the heart, improve muscle performance and decrease cardiac arrhythmias in animal models.”
While Elex Biotech is still a young startup company, the innovations and proprietary technology that led to the company’s formation arose from a longtime collaboration between Dr. Abramson, a biophysicist, and fellow PSU faculty member and company co-founder, Dr. Robert Strongin, an organic chemist. Together Drs. Strongin and Abramson developed novel compounds and methods that have resulted in decreased ventricular arrhythmias.
“It was clear that better management of heart failure and related cardiovascular diseases was needed, and so Dr. Abramson and I began working on the problem,” Dr. Strongin said. “For my part, I’m directing the synthesis of the drugs and incorporating into the new drugs the properties Dr. Abramson discovered were vital to achieving the bioactivity necessary to inhibit a leakage of calcium from the sarcoplasmic reticulum.”
With their work exhibiting promise, Drs. Strongin and Abramson began collaborating with Dr. Guy Salama, a cardiac electrophysiology and arrhythmia mechanisms specialist at the University of Pittsburg and Xander Wehrens, M.D., Ph.D., Director of the Cardiovascular Research Institute at Baylor College of Medicine and an expert in cardiac ion channels to test their compounds in animal models. With the results of the studies showing the compounds to be effective in treating arrhythmias in small animals, Drs. Abramson and Strongin found funding to continue their work. So in 2012, with a Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grant from the National Institutes of Health to further pursue the development, evaluation, and testing of new drugs, and the addition of Dr. Sandra Shotwell as CEO, the group formed Elex Biotech.
“We’ve been supporting this project for a long time now,” said Joe Janda, Director of the office of Innovation & Intellectual Property at Portland State University. “Keeping a patent portfolio alive and helping Elex find funding and space to work in. Along the way Jon and Rob have not been idle at all—they’ve found collaborators and experts all over the country to help validate and shape the work. Early stage drug companies like this are a huge risk and face long odds, but the team really believes in the impact it could have.”
It is no small task to bring a new drug to market, and seldom are the doctors, scientists, and entrepreneurs involved acknowledged for the good they do. The team at Elex Biotech offers some of the best of what Portland State University and Portland’s entrepreneurial community have to offer. If Elex biotech is successful in achieving their goal of developing new drugs to treat ventricular arrhythmias and heart failure, their success could relieve some of the burden that will befall an already overburdened healthcare system if the AHA’s projections prove correct and reduce the future cost of healthcare by billions. Moreover, their success could play a key role in saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of people a year. The office of Innovation & Intellectual Property at PSU is proud to have supported Elex Biotech and looks forward to continuing its support as this Portland startup strives to revolutionize the treatment of ventricular arrhythmias and heart failure.