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UW Professor’s Company, UW Sign Agreement to Commercialize Research

February 22, 2012
Three people working in lab
Don Jarvis, University of Department of Molecular Biology professor, has signed a spinout agreement with UW to commercialize some of his research of genetically engineered insect cells for manufacturing vaccines, diagnostics or therapeutics for use in human and veterinary medicine. Working in his UW lab are postdoctoral research associates Ann Toth, left, from Tolland, Conn., and Hideaki Mabashi-Asazuma, from Tokyo, Japan. (UW Photo)

A recent licensing agreement between the University of Wyoming and a new UW spinout will allow UW Department of Molecular Biology Professor Don Jarvis to commercialize certain aspects of his research, which involves the use of genetically engineered insect cells for manufacturing vaccines, diagnostics or therapeutics for use in human and veterinary medicine.

Under the agreement, UW-owned technology will be used by Jarvis' new Laramie-based company, GlycoBac LLC, to create new genetically engineered insect cell lines optimized for this purpose. Those lines will then be broadly offered throughout the biotechnology community as a new biologics manufacturing platform.

"We always rejoice when UW research can be placed into the broader economy through licensing, and it is doubly important when that includes creating technology businesses in Wyoming as Dr. Jarvis has elected to do," says Bill Gern, UW vice president for research and economic development. "Through such licensing, UW plays a strong role in economic diversification and improving prosperity."

Biologics are a class of protein-based drugs that include vaccines, diagnostic testing reagents, and therapeutics, such as high-value cancer-fighting antibodies and proteins that can be used to treat genetic diseases, including diabetes and anemia.

"Most biologics are ‘glycoproteins' (proteins with sugar molecules on them), and the structures of the sugar molecules dramatically impact their clinical efficacy," Jarvis says.

He and his colleagues have developed a laboratory process they term "glycoengineering," which involves genetically engineering insect cell sugar and protein production pathways. The process changes the structures of the sugars added to the proteins and enhances their clinical efficacy, or their ability to produce a desired effect.

In its research, Jarvis' team uses cells derived from the fall armyworm, which is an ordinary caterpillar. The cells are put in a nutrient solution, which allows them to grow and divide in the laboratory. A recombinant virus is then added to the cells, which induces the cells to make the protein for subsequent purification, testing and direct use as a biologic.

Being able to attach various sugars to protein is an essential part of GlycoBac's innovative research.

"Non-glycoengineered insect cells cannot produce biologics with the correct sugars. This has been a major impediment in their development as a biomanufacturing platform, despite their potential advantages as a faster and safer platform, as compared to mammalian cells," Jarvis says.

Unlike conventional drugs, biologics are produced using living cell systems, Jarvis says.

"Importantly, biologics with sugar molecules on them must have the correct constellation of sugars in order to persist in the human body and exert their therapeutic effects," he says.

Jarvis says most biologics are produced using mammalian cells, such as those from hamsters or mice. But manufacturing biologics with mammalian cells takes more time. In addition, the products can sometimes trigger an allergic reaction in humans, and mammalian cells can harbor undetected infectious agents, such as live viruses, that could infect human patients.

"Insect cells are emerging as an alternative production platform, which has none of these disadvantages," Jarvis says.  "We are focused on improving the utility of insect cell systems as a biologics manufacturing platform. The past 25 years we have created new genetic engineering methods and approaches, and performed basic research on insect cell molecular biology to enable these improvements."

He says GlycoBac will commercialize his academic laboratory group's research and will soon offer glycoengineered insect cells that can produce proteins with specifically designed sugar groups. The company also will provide technical education and training on how to use those cells.

"The establishment of this new company demonstrates how basic academic research performed at UW can impact economic development in the state of Wyoming," Jarvis says.

He adds that federal grants supported this research and provided many jobs at UW the past 14 years. The next step will be to translate that effort to the private sector. Jarvis says the ability to market the product reflects the direct support of Gern's office; Davona Douglass, director of the Wyoming Research Products Center; Jon Benson, director of the Wyoming Technology Business Center; and a "general atmosphere of support for the entrepreneurial activities of UW faculty, students and staff."

Working with Jarvis in his UW laboratory are postdoctoral research associates Hideaki Mabashi-Asazuma, from Tokyo, Japan; Gagan Gahlay, New Delhi, India; Christoph Geisler, Heerlen, The Netherlands; Chi-Hung Lin, Taipei, Taiwan; and Ann Toth, Tolland, Conn.

Other former UW students and staff who made key contributions leading to the establishment of GlycoBac LLC were Jason Hollister, graduate student from Texas, and Jared Aumiller, research assistant from Rock Springs.

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