In the biotechnology world, chemokines are "getting very hot," said Hassan Salari, president and CEO of Chemokine Therapeutics Corp. And while some biotechnology firms search the earth and oceans for compounds, Chemokine Therapeutics designs its own molecules.
The Vancouver, British Columbia-based company is focused not only on chemokines, but also cytokines. Chemokine Therapeutics was founded in 2000 by Salari and to date has raised about $8 million. Salari has served as a professor at the University of British Columbia and was a founder of Inflazyme Pharmaceuticals Ltd., also of Vancouver. Today, Salari's company has 14 employees, and has a subsidiary in Irvine, Calif.
"We are a ligand-based drug designer engaged in a whole range of proteins in the body called cytokines and chemokines," Salari told BioWorld Today, noting that significant drugs have been developed from that approach.
Those drugs include Cambridge, Mass.-based Biogen Corp.'s Avonex, Thousand Oaks, Calif.-based Amgen Inc.'s Neupogen and Procrit from Johnson & Johnson, of New Brunswick, N.J.
"They are examples of proteins that play an important biological function in the body," Salari said. "In real life, these proteins help to maintain proper blood cell levels. They help to maintain the extraordinary production of some antibodies and other proteins that damage tissue, and sometimes they serve as a growth factor to make cells grow and differentiate properly."
In disease conditions, they go up or down to the extreme, such as in the diseases of cancer, multiple sclerosis and arthritis.
"So, the question is how to maintain a normal level of these things in the body," Salari said.
There are 50 to 55 chemokines in the body, compared to 80 to 90 cytokines.
"Chemokines have one extra property, which is they are able to attract and call in different cells to another location," Salari said.
What Chemokine Therapeutics does is take a chemokine, for example, and produce that same chemokine in the lab in order to determine how many amino acids the protein has and how they are linked together. Using an artificial computer model of the receptors to which those cytokines or chemokines bind, the company is able to understand how the proteins link up to cause action.
"One of the amino acids of the chemokine is going to bind, or interact, with another amino acid on the receptor, and you see where they fit, or where they are hooking up together and the energy bond between these two amino acids," he said.
In that way, the company can design molecules that will increase the chemokines or cytokines when they need to be increased, or decrease the production when the level needs to be reduced.
"We don't go and search billions of things from plants and water and bacteria" to find compounds, Salari said.
At the moment, Salari is looking to raise $15 million, as the company recently filed its first equivalent of an investigational new drug application in the UK for its lead product. That "designer product," he said, is a peptide antagonist to a chemokine in non-small-cell lung cancer to stop the original tumor from growing and to prevent the disease from metastasizing by preventing the formation of new blood vessels. Because it doesn't act to actually "kill the cancer," it is not toxic to other cells.
The company also is working on designing a second drug, a "pro-chemokine" that works to mobilize stem cells and increase white blood cells in cancer and AIDS patients. Because the medication stimulates stem cell production in an individual, those stem cells can be taken from the patient and reinjected after radiation in the same person, thereby reducing the chances of rejection.
"It is also good for patients who take lots of medication," Salari said, noting that chemotherapy kills neutrophils and platelets in the blood.
Chemokine Therapeutics' drug acts to increase neutrophils and platelets for those patients. Salari said he expects to file an IND for that drug within nine months.
PPD Inc., of Wilmington, N.C., in April made an equity investment in the company to continue development of the peptide. Chemokine granted PPD an exclusive option to license the peptide following completion of Phase I studies. Chemokine also granted PPD the right to first negotiate a license to other Chemokine compounds.
Long term, Salari hopes to take the company public when it has two drugs in Phase II trials. And as for what the state of the market will be at that time, Salari said he is optimistic.