San Diego-based Sirenas, which has developed technology to rapidly isolate and synthesize potential drug compounds from marine organisms, said it has received a $775,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The funding is intended to generate new leads for treating neglected diseases, including tuberculosis, malaria, and cryptosporidium, according to Sirenas co-founder and CEO Eduardo Esquenazi.
About 60 percent of all drugs are modeled after naturally occurring compounds, Esquenazi said. Sirenas has amassed a library of prospective drug candidates by collecting sponges, cyanobacteria, algae, and other marine organisms. He explained that such organisms offer tremendous chemical diversity because they have evolved over billions of years in competitive ecosystems. As a result, marine organisms often produce molecules that aren’t intrinsically necessary to survive, but can be potent bioactive metabolites used to communicate, compete, and deter predation.
“These are small molecules,” not biologicals, Esquenazi said. “The key innovation on our end is figuring out very quickly which ones would be useful as drugs. A second part is our ability to rapidly synthesize these molecules in the lab.”
Although the World Health Organization estimates that more than 1 billion people around the world suffer from one or more neglected diseases, Sirenas said pharmaceutical companies “typically do not pursue these diseases because it is difficult to recover the costs of developing and producing treatments. Because of this, charitable foundations and governments frequently bear the responsibility of supporting early development of these therapeutics.”
Sirenas mounts underwater expeditions three or four times a year to collect organisms, Esquenazi said. In the image above, Esquenazi said Sirenas teamed up with Chapman expeditions and Fabien Cousteau, a grandson of the famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, to collect ocean specimens near Curacao. The company now has 19 full-time employees, Esquenazi said.