Pulmatrix, With One Drug for Multiple Bugs, Aims to Fundamentally Change Flu Treatment

6/9/09Follow @xconomy

Back in September, I wrote in this space that if a global flu pandemic ever strikes, public health officials might turn to a Lexington, MA-based startup company called Pulmatrix.

The pandemic (a bit overblown, I must say) did strike. And yes, the public health officials have been calling Pulmatrix.

This company’s technology is nowhere near ready for prime time in big clinical trials, much less the marketplace, so isn’t all the fuss a bit premature? Maybe. Then again, most biotech companies work on pretty incremental advances over the standards of care, but Pulmatrix is one of those rare beasts that has a chance to transform how physicians think about treating many major respiratory diseases. The technology has attracted $18 million in initial equity financing from Polaris Venture Partners and 5AM Ventures, and a scientific advisory board that includes David Edwards of Harvard University and Robert Langer of MIT. It’s been a few months since we last wrote about this company, so I got an update from CEO Bob Connelly.

The concept at Pulmatrix challenges the status quo of antiviral treatment, in which a drug is engineered to kill a single infectious invader, which works for a while until that virus inevitably uses its evolutionary tricks to develop resistance. This is the “one drug, one bug,” method, as Pulmatrix puts it. Instead of going that route, Pulmatrix is developing a technique that’s supposed to stop any pathogen or flu strain that might find its way into the lungs. It calls this the “one drug, multiple bug” approach.

“The single drug for multiple bug approach is what’s really generating a lot of attention for us, even though we’ve been keeping a low profile,” Connelly says.

Pulmatrix is trying to do this by creating aerosols that have positively-charged ion-based compounds, like calcium and magnesium, that would be sprayed into the lungs. These compounds are supposed to do a couple of things. First, they stimulate immune defenses to prevent infection. Second, the aerosols are supposed to change the viscosity of the mucus that lines the lungs, which activates proteins in the lungs to form 3-D matrices that create a firewall of sorts that blocks pathogens of any kind from burrowing deep into lung tissue. So far, in animal and early human studies, this method hasn’t gummed up the mucus lining of the lungs, which could make it harder to breathe, or worse, create a haven for infectious bugs to thrive.

“Think of it as like a river with a light coating of ice on top, but with the river flowing smoothly underneath,” Connelly says. “It’s more difficult to penetrate the surface top layer, and there’s still clearance below.”

What’s more, Pulmatrix is supposed to change the properties of the airways, so that when people breathe in a pathogen—like swine flu—it doesn’t form into those tiny droplets that people can sneeze … Next Page »

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