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Battling Drug-Resistant Malaria
Battling Drug-Resistant Malaria

Consider that a standard year contains 525,600 minutes; now consider that within that same year malaria kills 655,000 people in countries across Southeast Asia, Latin America, and sub-Saharan Africa, most of whom are children younger than five years old—that is more than one life lost every minute.

While the numbers are crushing, they also point to gains made in the treatment and prevention of malaria. The World Health Organization, for instance, estimates a 26% decline in malaria mortality rates from 2000 to 2010. Insecticide-treated mosquito nets and antimalarial drugs reduce the number of deaths, but this downward trend may be short lived. For decades now, instances of drug-resistant malaria have been spreading along what could be a path to disaster.

DesignMedix, a biotech startup based here in Portland and a PSU Business Accelerator company-in-residence, is a leader in the fight against drug-resistant malaria and other infectious diseases. Currently, people afflicted with drug-resistant malaria combat resistance by switching to another drug that works—if one is available, and if it is affordable. Based on technology and techniques developed by Dr. David Peyton, Professor of Chemistry at Portland State University, and his team, DesignMedix has innovatively combined antimalarial compounds with reversal agents that render the antimalarial effective again. This allows the company to synthesize new, patentable drugs, safely combining the strengths of both the antimalarial compound and the reversal agent into one drug that can be manufactured at low cost.

DesignMedix was established in 2006, but Dr. Peyton, one of the company’s cofounders, started down the path that led to the innovations in anti-malarial drugs some years before.

“Around the year 2000,” Dr. Peyton said, “I began thinking about malaria as a problem that had not yet been solved. It was around that time that I decided to focus on drug discovery.”

Over the course of the next few years, Dr. Peyton, along with collaborator Steven Burgess, now Senior Chemist at DesignMedix, set his laboratory in the Chemistry Department to work on developing drugs to address drug resistance. Early in 2005, Drs. Peyton and Burgess disclosed to the office of Innovation & Intellectual Property (IIP) the discovery of a class of compounds highly effective against malaria parasites. Later that year Dr. Peyton took park in the first Oregon Lab2Market Initiative, a workshop and competition targeting innovators and entrepreneurs with early stage ideas, where he pitched the idea for a company that would work on producing new drugs for treating malaria. Thanks to that pitch, Dr. Peyton came together with Lynnor Stevenson, and entrepreneur with a successful record of forming biotechnology companies and Dr. Sandra Shotwell, a veteran of early stage technology commercialization.

When asked what initially drew her to Dr. Peyton’s business pitch, Dr. Shotwell said: “My colleague Lynn Stevenson and I had worked with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded Malaria Vaccine Initiative for several years, consulting on a project related to the intellectual property issues surrounding malaria vaccines. Then, by some cosmic coincidence, David Peyton came through the Lab2Market program where Lynn and I were mentoring Oregon entrepreneurs. The three of us formed DesignMedix as a way to attract resources to the malaria drug development program. Since then we have made significant advances with grant funding from the NIH and ONAMI, and private investment from the Oregon Angel Fund, Angel Oregon, Northwest Technology Ventures, and many individual investors in Oregon and Washington.”

With DesignMedix up and running, the company worked with the office of Innovation & Intellectual Property to procure an exclusive license to the patent portfolio of technologies developed by Dr. Peyton and his team.

“We applied for U.S. and foreign patents for Peyton’s anti-malaria compounds,” said Joe Janda, Director or IIP, “to create value and control over the work. When David came together with Lynnor and Sandra to found DesignMedix, we licensed the patent portfolio to the company. Since then we have worked with them to provide the flexibility they needed to obtain funding, to do critical work on their commercialization path, and to shape the patent portfolio to best fit the needs of the company. Other than that, IIP has tried to stay out of their way.”

Today, DesignMedix is focused on fighting infectious diseases and Drs. Peyton and Burgess have one issued patent and several others pending in the United States, Europe, and India.

“The mission of DesignMedix,” Dr. Peyton said, “is the discovery and development of infectious disease oriented drugs. We began with malaria because the need for malaria therapeutics is world-wide. The number of people, families, regions, and economies being affected by this disease is huge.

“Our approach to hybrid anti-malaria drugs is designed to be safe, based on safe components, and it’s designed to be inexpensive. We produce drugs that will make the drug approval process considerably less problematic. So we have the advantages of safety, cost, and ease of production. When it’s all put together, we really have something.”

When asked about the good DesignMedix can do with the hybrid drugs they’re developing, Dr. Shotwell said: “We believe the drugs we are developing will be tremendously useful in both treating and preventing malaria. We also are exploring their application to other diseases. I feel fortunate to be able to work with such a good team of people on a project that really means something. We’re grateful for the support we have received from PSU, local investors, our granting agencies, and collaborators around the world. I am optimistic that our efforts will prove worthwhile.”

With a talented and expert staff of innovators, DesignMedix is on track to help see that the decline in malaria deaths over the past decade continues. The hybrid drugs being developed by Drs. Peyton and Burgess, along with other measures have the potential of saving hundreds of thousands of lives every year. Innovation & Intellectual Property is proud to have played a part in DesignMedix’s story and we are looking forward to seeing how this ambitious, Portland-based company with roots in PSU grows in the coming years.

Authored by Shaun McGillis
Posted September 26, 2012