WisBusiness: Madison company bets on jellyfish protein to help brain disorders

By Brian E. Clark

MADISON – Mark Underwood isn’t trying to discover a fountain of youth, not that the idea doesn’t intrigue him.

He’ll be more than content if the fledgling biotech company he helped found last year can simply slow down the ravages of neurodegenerative diseases and aging.

Underwood said he hopes his startup – QRG Bioscience – can use the aequorin protein found in a jellyfish to develop drugs to treat illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Aequorin might also be able to able to help stroke patients and people who have multiple sclerosis (MS).

“We not saying we’ll be able to make you 18 again,” said Underwood, who first studied jellyfish and their neurosystems at UW-Milwaukee a decade ago. He has a patent pending that stems from that research.

“But we believe we can create therapeutics using aequorin that can help balance levels of calcium in brain cells,” added Underwood, whose grandfather has Alzheimer’s and whose mother has MS.

“And that’s crucial, because as people age, brain cells lose their ability to control calcium and too much calcium can lead to the destruction of neurons in the brain,” said Underwood, 31.

When Underwood completed his undergraduate work in 1996, he hoped to continue his studies at UW-Milwaukee under neuroendrocrinologist William Wehrenberg. But the professor left to go to Clemson University as an administrator and Underwood was left in the lurch. He ended up finding a job as lab technician for Pak Technologies, a Milwaukee contract packaging company.

“I had to find a real job,” said Underwood. Over the next eight years, he rose to business development director at Pak. But he never forgot his dream of developing aequorin’s therapeutic potential.

The start-up, which began operations in Richfield last June, moved to its new offices at 455 Science Drive in Madison’s University Research Park in November. It has three employees and presented at Wisconsin Life Sciences Wisconsin Life Sciences Venture Conference 2004 last November in Madison’s Monona Terrace Convention Center. The company is a subsidiary of Quincy Resources Group, a Richfield packaging and fulfillment company with annual sales of about $20 million. Quincy’s owner, 45-year-old Michael Beaman, is president of QRG Bioscience.

Beaman and Underwood met because their companies did business together. Beaman said he was impressed by Underwood’s vision.

“I wanted to get into bioscience,” he Beaman said. “It’s an industry that has the wind at its back with government grants and lots of talent.

“Mark wanted to develop aequorin and Quincy financed the startup with an investment of several hundred thousand dollars,” he said.

“We’re the incubator and can handle human resources and things like that in Richfield. We may have some outside investors; we should find out if they are coming on board in the next month or so.”

Beaman, who took over Quincy Resources Group in 1994, said he has dibs on the first therapeutics produced by QRG Bioscience.

“I could use some help with my memory,” he said with a chuckle.

QRG Bioscience is working with Dr. James Moyer, an assistant professor at Underwood’s alma mater to do pre-clinical trials on rats. Underwood, no small fellow, said he was willing to “wrestle Moyer to the floor” to get him to sign on with QRG Bioscience.

“Fortunately, that wasn’t necessary,” Underwood said.

Although aequorin has been used for years in scientific assays to measure calcium levels in cells, Moyer said it has not been tested to see if it could restore calcium homeostasis or balance.

“Aequorin is naturally occurring and it’s pretty well known how it works,” he said.

“But this is exciting work because no one has bothered to test it to see if we can use it to treat various disorders and protect neurons,” he said.

“It has great potential,” he said. “We hope it will offer a novel treatment to offset cognitive decline.

Moyer said when proteins like aequorin are depleted in cells, the cells become vulnerable and can die.

“That can occur as a result of aging or from a variety of degenerative disorders,” he said.

Moyer said he has begun working with rats to determine if there is any improvement in cognitive decline once they have had aequorin injected into their brains.

“In other words, will old dumb rats become old smart rats after they’ve been treated?” he said.

Moyer praised Underwood for coming up with his idea.

“It’s great that Mark looked at this a little differently,” Moyer said. “He is a business person with a background in science. That’s a good combination.”

David Gilbert, a special assistant to the chancellor at UW-Milwaukee, said working with QRG Bioscience is “exactly the kind of activity we want to encourage and replicate.

“The fact that this is an alum who has created a biotech company and come back for scientific support makes it all the better,” he said.

“QRG is a shining example of how we can contribute to Wisconsin’s economy,” he said. “We wish Mark and his enterprise great success.”

Gilbert said UW-Milwaukee has several other faculty members who are working with pharmaceutical companies.

He cited Novascan, which was co-founded by engineering school dean William Gregory, as his university’s best known spin-off. Novascan is developing diagnostic imaging equipment to detect breast cancer.

QRG Bioscience also has contracted with the Waisman Center’s Clinical Biomanufacturing Facility on the UW-Madison campus to design a manufacturing system that is cost efficient and meets U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines. Up until now, it has taken two tons of jellyfish to produce 125 milligrams of aequorin.

John Keach, business development manager at the biomanufacturing facility, said researchers are trying to develop a process to grow the protein in specially engineered bacteria.

“Currently, you’d need to harvest about 80 tons of jellyfish to get the equivalent of a nickel’s weight of aequorin,” he said. “We hope this process will lead to the manufacture of much greater quantities in a short time.”

Keach said Waisman scientists hope to have the first batch done by this summer.

“We are hopeful,” he said. “But there are no guarantees in science. Fortunately, we have a roadmap to follow so they can get into pre-clinical trials soon.”

Eventually, if all goes well, Underwood would like to advance to clinical trials with humans. That could come in a decade or less.

Keach said the manufacturing center’s goal is to help get biotech company’s research from the lab to the clinic.

“Dealing with the FDA is a whole new level of red tape,” he said. “Most academics and small companies have not dealt with it. We know the ropes and have the materials and equipment and expertise to do things the right way.”

Underwood said he is pleased QRG Bioscience will have its feet in both the UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee campuses.

“But we want to have our headquarters here in Madison,” he said. “This is a great place for a start-up bioscience company because of the people and the technological resources here.

“It’s ideal for us to be so close to a premier research institution and in a city with a track record of helping new companies succeed. And University Research Park is the best incubator environment in the Midwest.”

Beaman agreed.

“I’ve found Madison to be very welcoming,” he said. “This city has a reputation for being leftist, but there is a good atmosphere here for growing a business.

“The people I’ve dealt with have been engaging, friendly, professional, optimistic and apolitical. My perception of Madison has changed.

“We want to get a task accomplished and cure a disease or two. We have the potential to make a huge impact worldwide and stave off disease. That’s a humbling prospect.”