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Updated: Dec 5, 2018

by David Wichner, Arizona Daily Star



From left, Laurence Hurley, Richard Austin and Vijay Gokhale are part of Tucson-based biotech startup Reglagene, which is seeking a cure for cancer. A.E. Araiza / Arizona Daily Star


Though Tucson-based Reglagene LLC is just an infant of a biotech company, it’s already crawling forward with its technology to selectively turn genes on and off to combat cancer.


The company was formed in November based on the technology developed by co-founder and University of Arizona drug-discovery chief Laurence Hurley.


Hurley and his Reglagene colleagues rushed to file an application for the 2017 Flinn Foundation Bioscience Entrepreneurship Program just in time to meet a Nov. 6 deadline, said Richard Austin, Reglagene’s CEO.


It was worth the scramble, as Reglagene was recently named one of seven Arizona bioscience startups — and the only Tucson-area firm — to win the Flinn competition and $30,000 in funding support plus program services. Since 2014, the Flinn Foundation has allocated $645,000 in grants to Arizona nonprofits to provide funding and services to 22 early stage bioscience firms.


“The Flinn win is really important for us,” said Austin, who for five years ran operations at the former Sanofi drug-research center in Oro Valley. “The money is nice, but it’s really put Reglagene on the map as an Arizona startup.”


Hurley, the company’s chief scientific officer, already is on the map as a serial biotech entrepreneur, having founded two companies that were later acquired for their technology.

Another Reglagene co-founder, Vijay Gokhale, has worked with Hurley for more than a decade on gene-based drug discovery and is head of computational chemistry at the UA’s Bio5 Institute, where Hurley directs drug discovery.


The company’s core “DNA quadraplex master switch” technology is used to identify small molecules that can act to switch certain genes on and off, with the aim of killing cancer cells.


“Its like a knot in DNA, and in order to turn on or off genes, you have to either tie up the knots or undo it,” said Hurley, who pioneered the method nearly 20 years ago. “We have drugs that can act like the real proteins in the cell to turn it on or turn it off. We have the capacity to turn off cancer genes. We also have the capacity to turn on genes, which is also important for other diseases.”

Hurley said many other researchers worldwide are working to advance the original technology, which was acquired by San Diego-based Cylene Pharmaceuticals and taken through mid-phase clinical trials before the company dropped it.


Hurley founded a new company that reacquired the technology in 2013, but with Reglagene, he and his colleagues are working on second-generation DNA-quadraplex technology.


“There’s a lot of people doing this in Asia, in Europe, in the States, but I think we’re quite a few years ahead of the game,” Hurley said.

The latest generation not only enables turning genes on and off, but allows the rate of change to be adjusted, which could be even more useful, Hurley said.


“Now, instead of having an on-off switch, we can do dimmer switches,” he said.

Austin, who was senior planning and resources manager at Sanofi before the Oro Valley operation was acquired by Icagen last year, got involved with the Reglagene while working as a “commercialization partner” with Tech Launch Arizona, the UA’s technology-transfer arm.

He said the company will remain initially focused on cancer and plans to go after government grants as seed funding. Austin said Reglagene has strong support from Tech Launch Arizona, including the counsel of mentor-in-residence Mike Sember, a former drug company executive.

Ultimately, Austin said, the founders see Reglagene as a drug-discovery company, serving major pharmaceutical companies that increasingly are relying on smaller firms to do such work.


“The pharma industry is really getting out of the drug-discovery business.”

BIO ROADMAP

Movers and shakers in Southern Arizona’s bioscience industries gathered in Tucson Wednesday for an annual luncheon celebrating the Arizona Biosciences Roadmap, an effort launched in 2002 by the nonprofit Flinn Foundation in Phoenix to grow the state’s bio industry.


There were no new numbers — the bio industry stats are updated every two years and this is an off year — but speakers at the event at Loews Ventana Canyon Resort cited continued growth and challenges to the industry.


The kenote speaker was Phil Wickham, a UA alumnus, veteran Bay area venture capitalist and startup entrepreneur.


While raising capital remains a major challenge for Arizona biotech entrepreneurs, Wickham said Southern Arizona is on the right track in collaborating with the UA and drawing talent and mentorship from local companies.


“Build great companies and capital will find them,” said Wickham, former CEO and current executive chairman of Kauffman Fellows, a nonprofit group based in Palo Alto, California, that offers a leadership development program for venture capitalists. Raising capital “starts with branding and storytelling,” he said, adding that well-run business incubators can help add value to startup efforts.

Updated: Dec 5, 2018






Seven Arizona bioscience startup firms were competitively selected to participate in the 2017 Flinn Foundation Bioscience Entrepreneurship Program, which was established to foster entrepreneurship and help early-stage bioscience companies develop into successful and sustainable businesses in Arizona.


The firms—based in Flagstaff, Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe, and Tucson—will receive $30,000 each in funding support and program services administered through a nonprofit partner.

Since 2014, the Flinn Foundation has allocated $645,000 in grants to Arizona nonprofits to provide funding and services to 22 early-stage bioscience firms.


“Launching a new company always presents risks and challenges, but the hurdles are especially great in the life sciences, where regulation and competition are so complex,” said Jack B. Jewett, President and CEO of the Flinn Foundation. “These seven firms, which epitomize the ingenuity of Arizona’s startup community, will receive services and funding at a vital moment in their development.”

The 2017 winning companies are:


Reglagene: Reglagene, a Tucson-based startup, uses a unique technology known as DNA quadruplex science to regulate genes as part of the drug-discovery process.


Biosensing Instrument (http://biosensingusa.com/): Biosensing Instrument is a Tempe-based company that designs high-sensitivity instruments to analyze molecular interactions based on Surface Plasmon Resonance, a technique used across the life sciences and nanotechnology applications.


BMSEED (http://bmseed.com/): BMSEED, or BioMedical Sustainable Elastic Electronic Devices, is a Phoenix-based company that develops commercial products based on stretchable gold films. The company focuses on products for biomedical applications that require soft and stretchable electronic interfaces with cells, tissue, or skin.


Iron Horse Diagnostics (http://ironhorsedx.com/): Iron Horse Diagnostics, a Scottsdale-based company, is developing the first diagnostic test to rapidly determine if a patient has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. The firm is also developing markers of disease progression to be used during clinical trials and a test to detect and monitor brain injury and concussion.


Phoenix Interface Technologies (http://phxinterface.com/): Phoenix Interface Technologies of Tempe has developed a solar-powered device that serves as a platform to attract and eliminate destructive disease-causing and crop-damaging insects. The device uses five sensory outputs to attract specific insects while sparing beneficial ones.


Poba Medical (https://www.facebook.com/pobamedical/): Poba Medical is a Flagstaff-based medical device company that provides engineering expertise in balloon design and development, device assembly, pilot manufacturing, and the production of catheter devices and intricate balloon assemblies.


SMART Brain Aging (http://www.smartbrainaging.com/): SMART Brain Aging is a Phoenix-based health-care technology company delivering research-supported programs, in person and virtually, that reduce cognitive decline in aging brains.

To qualify for the program, the selected firms must be engaged in the commercialization of bioscience research and biotechnology and/or the sale of products in the areas of medical devices and equipment; drugs, pharmaceuticals and diagnostics; agricultural feedstock and chemicals; research, testing and medical labs; or bioscience-related distribution—the industry categories recognized together as the biosciences in Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap.


A review committee appointed by the Flinn Foundation reviews all written applications, interviews the finalists, and makes its recommendations to the foundation.

In addition to receiving funding and services through a nonprofit partner, company leaders participate for one year as members of Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap Steering Committee, a group of the state’s science, health care, business, academia, and policy leaders responsible for overseeing Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap.


The application for the 2018 Flinn Foundation Bioscience Entrepreneurship Program will be available later this year. To learn more about the program and past winners, visit www.flinn.org/entrepreneur.


The Flinn Foundation is a privately endowed, philanthropic grant-making organization established in 1965 by Dr. Robert S. and Irene P. Flinn to improve the quality of life in Arizona to benefit future generations. In addition to advancing the biosciences, the foundation supports the Flinn Scholarship, a merit-based college scholarship program, arts and culture, and the Arizona Center for Civic Leadership.

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