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access the centers of funding and expertise on both coasts.
Sialix is pursuing two branches of development—a nutritional supplement to reduce chronic inflammation and a monoclonal antibody for the treatment of localized cancers. At the center of both technologies is Neu5Gc, abundant in red meat and dairy products. Humans lack the enzyme to synthesize Neu5Gc, so the molecule attaches itself to the ends of the glycans, or sugar chains, on the surfaces of our cells. In this way, dietary Neu5Gc is incorporated into human tissue, and as Varki has shown, the presence of this foreign molecule can trigger an ongoing immune response.
With sensitive assays, nearly all people test positive for antibodies to Neu5Gc, Behrens said. An additional 10 to 15 percent have significantly elevated antibody levels, indicative of a strong immune response. Sialix is designing its nutritional supplement to prevent Neu5Gc from accumulating in the body as a way to prevent this inflammatory response.
Varki’s lab also discovered that Neu5Gc is more highly expressed on the cells of solid tumors than in normal tissue. This presents the possibility that Neu5Gc may contribute in some way to cancer growth and also could serve as a “cancer specific” target. In addition, other glycans are mutated in predictable ways in cancers, which present additional cancer targets. To tackle these targets, Sialix is developing monoclonal antibodies to aggressively bind and destroy cells that express these non-human sialic acids and other cancer-specific glycans.
A prescription drug of this complexity remains in the preclinical phase, but Behrens says the nutritional supplement is targeted for human trials in 12-18 months. The company recently signed an option agreement on this first cancer program with Momenta Pharmaceuticals. The company also recently announced the formation of its scientific and business advisory boards, and Behrens says Sialix also is considering raising more capital. He declined to say how much capital the company intends to raise, or how much Sialix has raised previously from angel investors in New England.
Meanwhile, moving into Janssen Labs provides a chance for Sialix and Janssen R&D to get to know each other without committing to a long-term partnership. Behrens wouldn’t comment on where Sialix would be without Janssen Labs, but he says the incubator is an “enormous help,” and that Sialix is “thrilled to be there.”