UCSD Spinoff NexDx Aims to Diagnose Rheumatoid Arthritis

4/11/12Follow @bvbigelow

Research from the UC San Diego School of Medicine that shows distinct characteristics in the inflammation-producing cells that line the joints of rheumatoid arthritis patients is serving as the foundation for a new molecular diagnostics startup in San Diego.

The startup, NexDx, was founded last year to develop reliable and cost-effective technology to accurately diagnose rheumatoid arthritis (RA) at an early stage, when it might be possible to prevent the autoimmune disease from progressing to painful and debilitating symptoms. The startup raised $250,000 from investors in the fall, according to a regulatory filing.

In a statement today, NexDx says it has finalized an exclusive worldwide licensing agreement with UCSD to commercialize discoveries made in the lab of Gary Firestein, a professor of medicine and former chief of the UCSD Division of Rheumatology, Allergy, and Immunology. Firestein, who is now a UCSD dean and associate vice chancellor of translational medicine, co-founded NexDx with Jonathan Lim of San Diego’s City Hill Ventures.

The first priority for NexDx is to develop and commercialize a diagnostic test for RA, says Lim, who is serving as NexDx’s chairman and CEO. Lim founded City Hill Ventures in 2010, shortly after he ended a successful, seven-year run as CEO of San Diego-based Halozyme Therapeutics (NASDAQ: HALO). As I reported in October, Lim also has invested and is serving as the founding CEO of Eclipse Therapeutics, a San Diego biotech developing drugs against cancer stem cells.

Today most RA diagnoses are made after the disease is well-established. Symptoms progress to stiff, swollen joints, particularly of the hands and feet, which can be painful and debilitating. Rheumatoid arthritis also can damage the heart and lungs and lead to accelerated atherosclerosis.

Current tests lack the sensitivity needed at an early stage to differentiate RA from osteoarthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, and other autoimmune diseases.

In epigenetics studies of the inflammation-producing cells lining the joints of RA patients, Firestein’s team identified distinctive DNA patterns known as methylation biomarkers that could serve as a reliable test for RA in a blood sample.

Epigenetics refers to modifications to an individual’s DNA that affect gene expression without altering the order or sequence of the DNA. (Epigenetics helps to explain why a disease like RA might strike one genetically identical twin but not the other.) NexDx says such modifications can play an important role in determining disease susceptibility and severity, as well as a patient’s response to therapeutic drugs.

In a statement from the company, Dr. Firestein says, “With early diagnosis, physicians might be able to aggressively treat rheumatoid arthritis earlier than now possible and personalize therapy to minimize or halt disease progression.” In just-released RA treatment guidelines, the American College of Rheumatology says early aggressive therapy helps preserve the RA patient’s physical function, quality of life, and capacity to work.

In addition to developing a diagnostic test, NexDx plans to scrutinize aberrant DNA methylation signatures in search of potential drug targets for biopharmaceutical company partners.

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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