How to Tap Russia for Biomedical Breakthroughs: Lessons from Boston BioCom

10/15/09

Boston is an international hotbed of biotech research. So why would a company called Boston BioCom specialize, as it does, in bringing biomedical discoveries to the Hub from Russia?

To hear the folks at Boston BioCom tell it, Russia has some biotech brawn of its own. New York-based drug giant Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) invested $10 million in the Boston-based firm in summer 2008 to help it tap Russia for life sciences discoveries that could be commercialized in the US and elsewhere. And the company has already established two programs to bring science from Russian institutions to market.

Why Russia? Jeffrey Gelfand, chief scientific officer of Boston BioCom and a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, said that the U.S. State Department began pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into Russian institutions after the fall of the Soviet Union to redirect the efforts of former weapons scientists to medical and non-defense pursuits. Though the U.S. has wound down this funding as the Russian economy has strengthened, the resulting biomedical discoveries from the research makes Russia a viable source of medical technology.

Gelfand isn’t making this up. In San Francisco, a biotech called Medivation (NASDAQ:MDVN) is in late-stage clinical development of an antihistamine drug from Russia to treat Alzheimer’s disease. Also, ProTom International, based in Flower Mound, TX, is developing next-generation proton therapy systems for cancer treatment based on technology licensed from the Lebedev Physics Institute in Moscow. ProTom researchers have collaborated with scientists from MIT’s Bates Linear Accelerator Center in Middleton, MA, to enhance the system.

“I think [ProTom] is a perfect example of what we hope to do ourselves,” Gelfand said.

Boston BioCom has three main biomedical technologies in development, two of which stem from discoveries in Russia, while the third is from Gelfand’s own lab at MGH. The Russian-born technologies include a laser energy system, which is designed to boost immune responses in the skin, and an antibacterial therapy program, which is focused on using molecules called bacteriocins as drugs. (In nature, bacteria produce bacteriocins to fend off attacks from other bacteria.) The firm’s program from Gelfand’s lab involves the use of engineered antibodies—in this case, monoclonal antibodies fused with recombinant heat shock proteins—to treat cancer and infectious diseases.

The firm licensed the bacteriocin technology from … Next Page »

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