Biotech business awarded $3 million for development of malaria drug

DesignMedix, a biotech business in Portland State’s Business Accelerator building, co-founded by chemistry professor David Peyton, has just won its fifth small business grant for $3 million from the National Institutes of Health toward the development of a malaria cure drug, DM1157.

Malaria, a parasitic infection, is considered an unsolved problem worldwide, and many other cure drugs have run into the issue of resistance. This specific drug is being tailored to stand strong against resistance. Although DM1157 could eventually fall victim to drug resistance like the others, so far in simulated tests, it shows signs that it stands up to development of drug resistance much longer.

“Our drug is very good at working even with malaria parasite strains that are resistant to other drugs—it’s able to kill the parasite,” said Sandra Shotwell, president and COO of DesignMedix. “Some of our collaborators in Uganda and Indonesia have taken blood samples on dozens of patients, and it works on all of those patients, so we’re very excited.”

DesignMedix, which began with Peyton, Shotwell and current CEO Lynn Stevenson, is part of the Business Accelerator’s biotech start-up companies. The Business Accelerator is a hub for 30-plus start-up companies in biotech, cleantech and technology located in Portland.

As a part of the Business Accelerator, DesignMedix was able to acquire patent licensing in 2008 for DM1157 with the help of PSU, along with other support, including grants.

DesignMedix also hired four PSU students—both undergraduates and graduates studying chemistry—to work on different aspects of the drug.

“Over the past several years [student help has] been the major effort in my lab,” Peyton said. “I make it my goal in life [to] be surrounded with better people and smarter people than I am. I’ve got some fantastic people who have contributed in many, many ways, and their names are on publications, their names are on patents.”

With this most recent grant, the team will be able to complete the final steps before testing the drug on human subjects.

“We can’t use this money to go into human trials, but we’re hoping to get through all of the steps to get up to that point,” Peyton said, “which includes all of the preclinical testing, the characterization of safety of the drug, distribution of the drug through models that predict how it will go through a human and how long it will last in a human, and all of the paperwork one has to generate.”

All of the steps listed by Peyton must be completed within three years. Thus far, the drug has been tested in the PSU chemistry department in both human blood and animals.

“We do the discovery work and make different molecule structures, then we test them in human blood that is infected with malaria or in animals to see if it will cure the disease,” Shotwell said. “Most of those studies are actually done by our partners in the chemistry department at PSU.”

Other testing, possibly including the future of human testing, is done at separate, collaborative labs both inside and outside of the United States.

The significance of malaria, according to Peyton and Shotwell, is that it is a greater epidemic than expected.

“Worldwide there are over 200 million cases of malaria every year, and over 600,000 deaths, and the sad part is most of those are in very young children in Africa, so it is a major global health issue,” Shotwell said.

Peyton said that the awareness surrounding malaria has risen substantially from when he first got involved.

“I realized what an unsolved, wide problem this is,” Peyton said. “Back in the mid-1990s it was much darker days for malaria—it was an increasing problem with a lot less public awareness.”