UNC Health Care

UNC lung researchers team with Durham biotech Parion for $7.7 million NIH project

Media contact: Mark Derewicz, 919-923-0959, mark.derewicz@unchealth.unc.edu

October 15, 2014

CHAPEL HILL, NC – In the search for better treatments for cystic fibrosis (CF) and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute has tabbed several research labs at the UNC School of Medicine and the College of Arts and Sciences to spearhead a $7.7-million Centers for Advanced Diagnostics and Experimental Therapeutics (CADET) grant.

Led by Richard Boucher, MD, Director of the Marsico Lung Institute / UNC CF Research Center, UNC scientists will team up with Parion Sciences, a Durham-based biotech company to create molecules called “mucolytic agents” designed to help patients with lung diseases clear mucus from their airways. Doctors have identified restoration of mucus clearance as a key treatment strategy to help patients relieve airway obstruction and infection.

“The goal of this grant is to help us translate basic science discoveries into clinical benefit for patients as quickly as possible,” said Boucher, the James C. Moeser Eminent Distinguished Professor of Medicine. “For that, we need an industry partner.”

Boucher co-founded Parion Sciences in 2001 as a spin-out company from UNC. Based on the identification of disease targets by UNC researchers, Parion scientists have used medicinal chemistry approaches to create novel small molecules that alter the viscosity of mucus so that it might become easier to clear from airways. The company’s mucolytic agents are specifically designed to clear mucus.

As part of the CADET collaboration, researchers at UNC’s Marsico Lung Institute have developed novel techniques for testing the effectiveness of drugs to treat lung diseases.

“We’ve collaborated with several small and large biotech companies for other research projects,” Boucher said. “But for the CADET grant, we wanted to work with the most interesting and novel mucolytic agents we could find, and Parion had them.”

The University of Colorado at Denver, the only other academic institution to receive a CADET grant to test mucolytic agents, also chose to collaborate with Parion.

“Our success with this grant underscores the value of commercializing research through start-up ventures,” said Barbara Entwisle, PhD, UNC’s Vice Chancellor for Research. “By helping secure this $7.7 million opportunity, Parion is paying dividends to North Carolina and driving research that holds promise for the millions worldwide suffering from lung diseases.”

As part of the UNC collaboration, Parion chemists will give UNC researchers access to several molecules designed to help patients clear mucus. UNC researchers will then put the molecules through a battery of experiments to determine how well each compound clears mucus and by which mechanisms the molecules work. Using animal models of CF and COPD, scientists at UNC will home in on the best drug candidates.

When Parion and UNC are confident they’ve developed compounds that show real promise as effective therapeutics, then Lovelace Research Institute in New Mexico – the third partner in the CADET grant – will conduct the toxicology experiments necessary before any potential drug can enter phase I human clinical trials.

Parion chemists have already conducted advanced screens of molecules to identify several different chemical scaffolds as effective mucolytic agents.

“As a science-driven company, it’s gratifying to partner with a premier academic institution such as UNC,” said Joe Schachle, chief operating officer at Parion Sciences. “The NIH support with the combined expertise of the collaboration will accelerate our innovative mucolytic program toward the creation of new drugs to help patients.”

Along with Boucher’s lab, each UNC lab involved in the CADET project is part of the Marsico Lung Institute / UNC CF Research Center. The research teams are led by:

  • ŸBrian Button, PhD, research assistant professor, UNC School of Medicine
  • ŸCamille Ehre, PhD, research associate, UNC School of Medicine
  • ŸDavid Hill, PhD, research associate, UNC School of Medicine, Center for Tobacco Regulatory Science and Lung Health
  • ŸMehmet Kessimer, PhD, associate professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, UNC School of Medicine
  • ŸAlessandra Livarghi-Butrico, PhD, research associate, UNC School of Medicine
  • ŸWanda O’Neal, PhD, research associate professor, UNC School of Medicine
  • ŸMichael Rubinstein, PhD, John P. Barker Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, UNC College of Arts and Sciences

Read more about the CADET grants

Read more about Parion Sciences