Theresa N. Ramos, PhD, and Scott Barnum, PhD, working in their lab at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Photo courtesy of UAB
Meningitis research efforts two decades in the making could soon come to fruition through a partnership between investigators at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and a medical device startup, with assistance from the UAB Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
Laboratory test results to diagnose this infection, particularly if bacterial meningitis is suspected, lose precious time, are expensive and often are inaccurate, says Scott Barnum, PhD, professor in the UAB Department of Microbiology.
“Viral meningitis generally is not serious and often is treated symptomatically, while bacterial meningitis requires immediate intervention and treatment with antibiotics because of the serious and potentially life-threatening nature of that infection,” Barnum says.
Yearly in the United States, from 2003-2007, about 4,100 cases of bacterial meningitis occurred, resulting in 500 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Barnum’s work with bacterial meningitis dates back nearly 20 years, when his team was looking at production in the brain of proteins in the complement system, a critical part of the immune system. They found that many complement proteins were produced by several cell types in the central nervous system, including neurons — the first time anyone had made that observation.
“When we looked at the levels of complement proteins in the cerebrospinal fluid of patients with confirmed bacterial meningitis, we found that certain proteins were markedly elevated compared to the levels found in aseptic meningitis (meningitis caused by a virus or other pathogen),” Barnum says. “We patented this observation with the aim of developing a diagnostic test for discriminating between the two types of meningitis.”
Now, thanks to a mutual colleague’s introduction, Barnum’s team has partnered with Kypha Inc., a St. Louis-based company focused on complement proteins and lateral flow assays, which are diagnostic tests similar to a pregnancy test, to bring that goal to a reality.
“A test that could rapidly and inexpensively discriminate between bacterial and viral meningitis would be a valuable tool for the emergency room physician,” Barnum says. “We would love to see the test be used in underdeveloped parts of the world where limited resources prevent timely and accurate diagnosis of most diseases, including meningitis. This is the kind of test we are working to develop in partnership with Kypha.”
With Kypha’s help, Barnum says the original scope of the project has expanded and opened other doors at UAB that have led to new collaborations that are mutually beneficial. Kypha has funded Barnum’s postdoctoral researcher, Theresa N. Ramos, PhD, dubbing her a postdoctoral entrepreneur for the company.
“This is a unique position that Kypha developed; postdocs like Dr. Ramos will spend 50 percent of their time in the lab and 50 percent of their time learning about the business side of science through interaction with Kypha,” Barnum says. “This is a great opportunity for someone thinking about moving into biotechnology or pharmacology after their postdoc. For Dr. Ramos, this will be a great experience and will significantly enhance her resume.”
“After Kypha CEO Chad Stiening visited UAB and witnessed the breadth of research and collaborations that occur here, he and his team decided to make UAB a beta-testing site for their new device, the COMP ACT System,” Ramos says. “It has been a match made in research-entrepreneurial heaven.”
Stiening says they were immediately impressed with UAB’s clinical research infrastructure, and with the level of interest and responsiveness of faculty, clinical staff and administrative leaders.
“This was important given the broad potential clinical utility of Kypha’s products and our desire to conduct several clinical studies in parallel across multiple indications,” Stiening says. “Perhaps the most pleasant surprise was the level of commitment and institutional support for industry partnerships — and a recognition of the tremendous value and unique challenges that startups bring to the equation.”
Several layers of support exist for this project at UAB, and all have been key players in facilitating interactions between UAB and Kypha, says Ramos, including the Department of Microbiology, UAB Hospital’s Emergency Department, the Institutional Review Board, and most notably the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
“We couldn’t move our project forward without the help of the IIE and Kypha; the speed and scale of what we can do with the partnership take the effort to a whole new level,” Barnum said. “It’s a synergy that all universities and biotech startups could benefit from. I hope that it is the first of many partnerships that UAB and the IIE develop.”
IIE managing director Kathy Nugent, PhD, says the IIE is the nexus for UAB innovation and applied research.
“Our mission is to broaden the impact of UAB’s contributions by facilitating collaboration with industry and providing greater opportunities for researchers and entrepreneurs,” Nugent says. “UAB continues to be at the forefront of scientific and medical innovation, and Dr. Barnum’s research is an excellent example of the game-changing breakthroughs that the IIE is helping to bring forward. We are enthused by the encouraging results already observed by Dr. Barnum and his team as they work to create a first-line diagnostic for the identification of this often fatal condition.”
Nugent says the IIE is excited to be working with researchers like Barnum, and they are committed to ensuring that the public has ongoing access to the newest, most effective scientific and health care innovations, products and procedures.
“We are fortunate to be located in Birmingham with such a vibrant academic and medical ecosystem to support this type of innovation,” Nugent says. “Certainly, the commitment of the local business community, along with the university’s collaborators and, most important, the support of UAB’s senior leadership, ensures that Birmingham will continue to be known as a center for innovation.”
“We have been very fortunate to have the support of the IIE, my chairman, Frances Lund, PhD, and Kypha as well,” Barnum said. “It’s a great validation of our original basic science and in our plans to develop this finding into a rapid, point-of-care test that we hope will have worldwide clinical utility.”
Source: University of Alabama at Birmingham