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UH: How biotech companies are withstanding the pandemic

At a time when the coronavirus crisis is impacting most facets of business, biotech startups are standing up to the virus. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

At a time when the business world is reeling, biotech companies are still hanging on. Many biotech startups have successfully pivoted their entire platforms to focus on coronavirus-related work.

Of course, these companies aren't without their struggles. Clinical trials have come to a pause, finding investors has become more difficult and financing rounds have been surceased.

Even then, there are many biotech startups that have managed to snag government loans via the Paycheck Protection Program among other financial assistance. According to Vivian Doelling, the vice president of emerging company development at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, COVID-19 has not impacted the bio science industry as much as it has others.

"Some of the smaller biotech companies have pivoted research to be more COVID-centric. This is also true particularly for companies with open platforms or who were developing products in the antiviral space," Doelling told BioSpace, an online biotech publication.

"To add to that, there are research organizations that are receiving more pandemic-centric business from biotech. And that includes clinical trial work," she continued.

Ongoing biotech challenges

It's no surprise that there have been some concerns regarding the delay of clinical trials for products that have nothing to do with coronavirus. It is feared that the delays might create product pipeline problems in the long run. See, companies usually file patent applications before trials even start. So, delays in clinical trials, according to Doelling, "could take up a big chunk of the time in which treatments can have patent exclusivity before generic competition intensifies."

Delays negatively impact smaller biotech startups. These startups' futures typically rely on the success rate of trial outcomes. Any delay in these trials subsequently hurts the small biotech startup. But, even then, the pandemic still doesn't seem to be affecting these startups.

Investment blues

"The expectation is investors are going to hold back more funds than they projected for their portfolio companies. There could be less funding available for new investments," expressed Doelling. However, it is her belief that biotech companies are hot investments right now, and sees new investments on the horizon.

"Investors are cautious at the moment," said Marty Rosendale, the CEO of the Maryland Tech Council, to BioSpace. "They're going to analyze their own portfolio to make sure those companies are solid."

Rosendale, echoing Doelling's investment concerns, says investors want to be more careful right now. They are making it a point to invest less money, which makes it difficult for startups seeking funding.

Keep on keeping on

Many startups are continuing to operate because they've found their rhythm in the virtual workplace. "I have not come across any biotech startup that has closed its doors during the pandemic," Rosendale said. "Sure, some have faced delays and temporarily stopped operations, but overall, haven't heard of any closing for good."

There are a few forces at play when it comes to helping biotech startups stay afloat during the pandemic storm. Landlords are forgiving rent and government loans are helping companies pay employees. "I know of companies that have been out there fundraising since the beginning of the COVID crisis. And they're still out there doing it," Rosendale said. "But I still haven't heard of one company that was forced to end or even delay a round of funding, not one."

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Rene Cantu, the author of this piece, is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

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A research team housed out of the newly launched Rice Biotech Launch Pad received funding to scale tech that could slash cancer deaths in half. Photo via Rice University

A research funding agency has deployed capital into a team at Rice University that's working to develop a technology that could cut cancer-related deaths in half.

Rice researchers received $45 million from the National Institutes of Health's Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, to scale up development of a sense-and-respond implant technology. Rice bioengineer Omid Veiseh leads the team developing the technology as principal investigator.

“Instead of tethering patients to hospital beds, IV bags and external monitors, we’ll use a minimally invasive procedure to implant a small device that continuously monitors their cancer and adjusts their immunotherapy dose in real time,” he says in a news release. “This kind of ‘closed-loop therapy’ has been used for managing diabetes, where you have a glucose monitor that continuously talks to an insulin pump. But for cancer immunotherapy, it’s revolutionary.”

Joining Veiseh on the 19-person research project named THOR, which stands for “targeted hybrid oncotherapeutic regulation,” is Amir Jazaeri, co-PI and professor of gynecologic oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. The device they are developing is called HAMMR, or hybrid advanced molecular manufacturing regulator.

“Cancer cells are continually evolving and adapting to therapy. However, currently available diagnostic tools, including radiologic tests, blood assays and biopsies, provide very infrequent and limited snapshots of this dynamic process," Jazaeri adds. "As a result, today’s therapies treat cancer as if it were a static disease. We believe THOR could transform the status quo by providing real-time data from the tumor environment that can in turn guide more effective and tumor-informed novel therapies.”

With a national team of engineers, physicians, and experts across synthetic biology, materials science, immunology, oncology, and more, the team will receive its funding through the Rice Biotech Launch Pad, a newly launched initiative led by Veiseh that exists to help life-saving medical innovation scale quickly.

"Rice is proud to be the recipient of the second major funding award from the ARPA-H, a new funding agency established last year to support research that catalyzes health breakthroughs," Rice President Reginald DesRoches says. "The research Rice bioengineer Omid Veiseh is doing in leading this team is truly groundbreaking and could potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives each year. This is the type of research that makes a significant impact on the world.”

The initial focus of the technology will be on ovarian cancer, and this funding agreement includes a first-phase clinical trial of HAMMR for the treatment of recurrent ovarian cancer that's expected to take place in the fourth year of THOR’s multi-year project.

“The technology is broadly applicable for peritoneal cancers that affect the pancreas, liver, lungs and other organs,” Veiseh says. “The first clinical trial will focus on refractory recurrent ovarian cancer, and the benefit of that is that we have an ongoing trial for ovarian cancer with our encapsulated cytokine ‘drug factory’ technology. We'll be able to build on that experience. We have already demonstrated a unique model to go from concept to clinical trial within five years, and HAMMR is the next iteration of that approach.”

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