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Published September 08, 2020
Approximately 34.5 million people worldwide, including 9.2 million people in the United States, suffer from gout, an excruciatingly painful condition in which needle-like uric acid crystals form in joints.
James Francis, a University of Wyoming alumnus and chief development officer at Theraneutrics, is making a valuable contribution to the startup company’s efforts toward engineering Krystalase, a patent-pending probiotic yeast strain that would break down uric acid in the gut. Excessive uric acid levels are the root cause of gout.
Specifically, Francis focuses on developing the company’s financials and growing the business. As Theraneutrics is an early-stage startup, his daily duties vary considerably and depend on what needs to be worked on that day.
When Francis came on board, Christoph Geisler, founder and CEO of Theraneutrics, had already applied for a $225,000 National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research Program Phase 1 grant, which was awarded to the company in July.
“This funding will be used to further develop the company’s prototype strain into a product that is ready for prime time, and to test its efficacy in a mouse model,” says Francis, who grew up in Gillette.
The company has applied for a matching grant from the Wyoming Business Council. The application for that grant is currently under review, Francis says.
Theraneutrics, an innovative biomedical startup working to solve gout through engineered probiotics, was incorporated in October 2018. The company became a client of the IMPACT 307 (formerly the Wyoming Technology Business Center) business incubator in August 2019. Geisler dedicated himself full-time to this venture in January. The company was one of three winners of UW’s Microbial Ecology Collaborative Startup Launchpad in March.
“I briefly interacted with Christoph while a student in an official capacity. Namely, I provided some feedback on his investor pitch deck,” Francis explains. “However, Christoph and I developed a friendship as a result of our frequent entrepreneurial conversations around the coffee pot. This personal rapport is what ultimately resulted in me being hired by Theraneutrics upon my graduation from UW.”
Francis graduated from UW in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. In 2020, he received his master’s degree in electrical engineering and an MBA, both from UW. Geisler, from Heerlen, the Netherlands, graduated from UW in 2011 with a Ph.D. in molecular biology.
“By breaking down uric acid within the gut, Theraneutrics aims to use the digestive tract as a net sink,” Francis says. “The goal is to lower uric acid levels throughout the body, preventing crystal formation and, thereby, avoiding gout attacks.”
Uric acid is a normal byproduct of healthy human metabolism. However, uric acid is poorly soluble. When levels exceed a threshold, it starts to precipitate as needle-sharp crystals within joints. These crystals damage joints and can cause inflammation. This is known as gout.
Excessive uric acid levels commonly result from a diet rich in a category of compounds called purines, Francis says. Purines are building blocks used inside every cell, but some foods contain more purines than others.
Foods high in purines include beer, red meat, fish, shellfish, spinach and asparagus. Consumption of foods containing high fructose corn syrup also can cause gout attacks. Beyond dietary factors, a predisposition to develop gout can be inherited. Gout also is commonly associated with other conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. Finally, men are more likely to experience a gout attack than women.
To assist the company, Francis hired a student intern, Kaylee Bass, of Gillette. Bass is expected to graduate next spring with a bachelor’s degree in administration and accounting.
“Kaylee has assisted us in many ways on the business side of the company and is currently focusing on improving our social media presence,” Francis says.
Francis adds Theraneutrics is looking to hire a molecular biology undergraduate student intern from UW. This student would focus on supporting the research in the lab.
“Specifically, he or she will support full-time research staff in routine lab work,” Francis says. “This will provide the student with an opportunity to learn hands-on research skills in an active lab setting. Although this will start with more basic skills, he or she also will be developing critical thinking and experimental design, execution and interpretation skills along the way as he or she grows more experienced.”