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PSU Biomedical Startup Receives $1.4M NIH Grant
PSU Biomedical Startup Receives $1.4M NIH Grant

The steady growth of Portland State University’s biomedical prowess may seem surprising, given its lack of a medical school. However, it makes more sense when one considers how the university invested in its Chemistry, Biology and Physics Departments in recent years by hiring senior scientists, upgrading the Science and Research Training Center, and building research and teaching labs in the Collaborative Life Science Building (CLSB) in partnership with Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) and Oregon State University’s School of Pharmacy. Furthermore, the entrepreneurial renaissance attracting innovators and venture capitalists to Portland from hotbeds like Silicon Valley, San Diego and Seattle is centered in the “Innovation Quadrant,” which encompasses PSU, OHSU, the CLSB, the Portland State Business Accelerator, the Oregon Translational Research and Development Institute’s (OTRADI) Bioscience Incubator and OMSI.

This background provides context for PSU’s most recent biomedical research milestone, the winning of a two-year, $1.4M grant by one of the University’s two pharmaceutical startup companies, Elex Biotech. Elex was cofounded by Professors Rob Strongin, Department of Chemistry, and Jonathan Abramson, Department of Physics, to address the most pressing public health crisis in the Unites State today: heart failure and related cardiovascular diseases.

Among the most common of those cardiac conditions, are heart arrhythmias with the intimidating name of catecholaminergic polymorphic ventricular tachycardia (CPVT), an often fatal inherited disorder caused by an imbalance of calcium, which affects the flow of ions in and out of cardiac cells. CPVT episodes frequently begin in childhood and can go undetected, typically first appearing during physical exertion while playing sports, where irregular heartbeats can prove deadly.

Strongin, Abramson and colleagues Xander Wehrens of Baylor College of Medicine and Guy Salama of the University of Pittsburgh have produced novel compounds that decrease abnormal calcium flows, the cause of CPVT, eliminating arrhythmias in animal models. The NIH grant will allow them to develop and evaluate additional compounds.

“We are very pleased to have this support from the NIH to continue our important work addressing cardiac arrhythmias,” Dr. Abramson said. “CPVT is a devastating disease. Treatment with drug compounds that directly corrects the suspected cause of the disease has the potential to reduce the number of arrhythmias and resultant cardiac arrests in these patients.”

Besides potentially saving the lives of cardiac victims, the research carried out by Elex Biotech can serve as a bridge between PSU and one of OHUS’s flagship programs, the Knight Cardiovascular Institute (KCVI). PSU and KCVI leaders have recently begun exploring expanded collaboration, which might allow more Portland State scientific discoveries to be translated into medical treatments.