Senexta Therapeutics, a spinout of the University of Texas at El Paso, said this week that it has licensed intellectual property from UTEP related to methanesulfonyl fluoride as a potential treatment for brain disorders.
The company is the first biotech to spin out of UTEP, and is a result of an increased investment in life sciences research and entrepreneurship at the school, a university official said this week.
UTEP is also hoping that the new company will serve as a template for commercializing future biomedical-related technologies developed at the school.
Senexta was founded to bring to market therapies based on methanesulfonyl fluoride, or MSF, a compound that UTEP professor Donald Moss discovered could be an effective treatment for Alzheimer's disease.
The compound, which inhibits the production of acetylcholinesterase in the central nervous system, has been found to improve cognitive performance in patients with senile dementia such as Alzheimer's and is believed to play a key role in memory, learning, and other brain functions.
Moss teamed with Federica Pericle, associate vice president for biotechnology in UTEP's Office of Research and Sponsored Projects, to discuss potential commercialization routes for the compound; and Pericle subsequently tapped a former colleague, Enrico Braglia, a Swiss entrepreneur with a pharmaceutical development background.
Pericle and Braglia co-founded the company last fall with undisclosed investments from Braglia and Pericle through Biotechnology Investment Opportunity, an El Paso-based investment consulting and scientific advisory company Pericle founded.
In November, Senexta inked a letter of intent with the university to license MSF; and this week the company said it had acquired the worldwide exclusive rights to develop and market the compound to treat brain disorders, including Alzheimer's disease and stroke. Additional terms of the agreement were not disclosed.
Roberto Oseguedo, vice president for research at UTEP, said that the university had previously sought to license the invention to existing drug developers, but had little success.
"It did not go so well, basically because of a lack of progress for the [technology]," Oseguedo told BTW this week. "My concern was that we had the patent already issued, and the indications that we had were that the drug had tremendous potential, and we needed to take it to market as soon as possible," which is why UTEP explored the spinout option.
UTEP, which has a comparatively small tech-transfer program compared with some of the other schools in the UT system, had previously spun out companies to commercialize technologies such as water purification and organic pigments for environmentally friendly applications, Oseguedo said. Senexta, however, is the school's first biotech spinout.
"We have invested a lot of resources in biomedical sciences," Oseguedo said. "We have a brand new building that contains state-of-the-art facilities, and we've seen a tremendous increase in biomedical research." Oseguedo was referring to a recently completed 100,000-square-foot, $45 million bioscience research building on UTEP's campus.
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UTEP, which has an IP portfolio of about 30 patents in areas such as chemistry, materials sciences, IT, aerospace engineering and, more recently, biotechnology, handles its own technology transfer. However, being a comparatively small operation, it relies on the UT central office for certain advice and know-how.
"Each office works separately," Oseguedo said. "There is only a support system that is approached if needed. For legal counsel, we were able to use the central support system. Where we benefit the most is collaborating with other tech-transfer offices across the state and system. We rely on more experienced offices like UT Southwestern and UT Austin to provide support in terms of networking and advice."
Now that Senexta has taken its first steps from under the university umbrella, UTEP is hoping that it can serve as a template for additional commercialization opportunities and entrepreneurship in the life sciences, according to Oseguedo.
"UTEP needs to move toward more entrepreneurial activities," he said. "This may serve as a good template. You learn from prior mistakes, too. Some things that we may do wrong the first time, we will do better the second time around."
With Braglia on board as Senexta's CEO, the company will have a presence in Switzerland. However, Pericle, who is the company's COO, will be Senexta's liaison in the El Paso area.
It is unclear whether Senexta will permanently move to one location or another. But for the time being, it will rely on research being done by Moss and colleagues at UTEP to help advance its pipeline.
"It's a small company and will maintain a presence" in El Paso, Oseguedo said. "The idea is [for UTEP] to help with future commercialization efforts."
Senexta has another special significance to UTEP due to the prevalence of Alzheimer's disease in Hispanic populations. In a statement, UTEP President Diana Natalicio said that Alzheimer's occurs at a disproportionate rate among Hispanics, "so it is especially gratifying that the research to fight this disease is occurring at UTEP – the only research university in the US with a majority Mexican-American student population."