Using green tea to treat everything from dry mouth to cold sores, from dandruff to diabetes
Working to harness the power of ECGC, the component of green tea that suppresses the body’s inflammatory response, Dr. Stephen Hsu is developing better, natural treatments for illnesses - both common and rare. The company’s name is a combination of Camellia sinensis – the species of plant that produces green tea – and an “x” which means “prescription.”
Stephen Hsu’s love affair with green tea began during less than lovely circumstances.
Working as a young boy on a rural farm in China, a normal day for him included raising pigs, growing rice and cultivating green tea leaves. What it didn’t include was running water.
“I was 16 years old and wasn’t given the opportunity to go to high school,” Hsu, head of Camellix and an oral biologist at GRU, says. “I became very ill with a bad case of diarrhea for a very long time. The local farmers told me to drink this beverage and handed me water with a lot of the green tea plant leaves in it and I got better.”
Fast forward nearly 20 years and Hsu has migrated to the United States, earned his doctoral degree and is on the faculty in the GRU College of Dental Medicine. He and his colleagues are studying oral cancer.
“I began to think back to my experiences on the farm and apply that to our study,” Hsu says “It caused me to wonder, are there natural treatments that we were overlooking?”
The answer, Hsu says, was in the power of the green tea leaves that had cured him so long ago. Specifically, the magic was in a component of green tea called ECGC, which helps suppress the body’s immune response.
What started as the study of green teas curative effects on cancer cells moved to other cells – in the skin, hair, nails…just about any other place in the body.
“The polyphenols, or ECGC, in the tea cleared the body of oxidative stress and protected against free radicals,” Hsu says. “It also led us to look at ECGC-enabled protein expressions that inhibited the body’s inflammatory response. It prevented much of the damage cause by inflammation.”
Turning those discoveries in the lab into products people could use seemed like a natural progression, he says.
In March 2012, Camellix launched its first product - an over-the-counter all-natural chewing gum designed to relieve mild to severe symptoms of dry mouth. It was the first consumer product released out of the incubator. Those products were followed quickly by two shampoos – one for dandruff and one to thicken hair – and a treatment for fever blisters and cold sores.
But that, Hsu says, is the small part of the company.
“What we really want to focus on is drug development,” he says. “We have found that when viruses are exposed to modified polyphenols from green tea, they lose their ability to bind to cells.” A treatment capitalizing on that effect could prove to be a valid vaccine against herpes and HIV, which can only currently be treated with antivirals after infection.
Hsu and the Camellix team are working to develop new drugs to combat herpes and shingles infections and to treat and prevent the reoccurrence of human papilloma virus-related mucosal warts.
“We all believe that natural, non-toxic products are the future for controlling diseases and chronic conditions, without toxic and harmful materials,” Hsu says. “But without the resources – the lab space, the credibility, the support from the university – that the incubator has provided, none of it would be possible.”
Recognizing an unmet need for the same type of research he was doing, founder Jin-Xiong She founded Jinfiniti to offer a faster, cheaper way to process cell samples
His ultimate goal? Discovering better ways to treat diabetes and cancer.
Screening more than 350,000 newborns across the world for genes that put them at risk for type 1 diabetes and following them for 15 years is, in a word, cumbersome. Doing it without robotic technology that speeds up that process could have proven near impossible.
As principal investigator on the $10 million “The Environmental Determinants of Diabetes in the Young,” or TEDDY, study, Jin-Xiong She is trying to piece together genetic and environmental causes of the disease. Screening thousands of blood samples, multiple times a year, he and other scientists working on the study found no place that offered high-throughput scientific services on such a large scale.
High throughput uses robots, data-processing software and sensitive detectors to quickly conduct millions of “tests.” The process can rapidly identify active compounds, antibodies or genes and the results can provide starting points for drug design and for understanding the interaction or role of a particular biochemical process.
“There really was an unmet need,” says She, also director of the Georgia Regents University Center for Biotechnology and Genomic Medicine.
In 2010, She founded Jinfiniti Biosciences, LLC, to meet that need. The company provides a variety of high-throughput scientific services including nucleic acid isolation, genomic analysis, antibody production, immunoassays, medicinal chemistry and toxicity evaluation for academic and pharmaceutical institutions. In its first two years, Jinfiniti had already secured two multi-year, multi-million dollar contracts to isolate large numbers of RNA/DNA samples using an automated proprietary high-throughput platform that offers superior ability to process samples at high speed and low cost.
She’s short-term goal is providing those research services on a contract basis to pharmaceutical companies and large research programs, including the worldwide TEDDY program.
“It is a great way to provide our expertise and generate revenue which we’ll use for further research and development,” She says. “But our long-term goal is to help translate discoveries into clinical practice and ultimately improve people’s health.”
She and the other 10 employees of Jinfiniti are doing that by working to find biomarkers for human disease prediction and diagnosis. That could lead to more personalized drugs, which would better treat diseases like diabetes and cancer, he says.
It’s something She says wouldn’t be possible without the GRU incubator.
“Having that here is so important to career development,” She said. “Of course, it is a wonderful economic driver for this community, but more than that, it supports commercialization and entrepreneurship, something that is so important. Biobusinesses are the wave of the future.”
Illuminating the process by which a small fish regenerates cells could change the paradigm of how human diseases are treated
A small fish has the ability to show us what biology is capable of, according to Jeff Mumm, head of Luminomics and a biologist at Georgia Regents University. “With the same general set of genetic tools, these animals can do something we can’t: regenerate lost cells and tissues.”
The key, he says, is figuring out how and leveraging that to create regenerative therapies for humans from existing drugs.
As a postdoctoral fellow at Washington University in St. Louis, Mumm and his research partner Eric Schroeder (now at Loyola University in Chicago) developed a technique that allowed them to eliminate specific cell types in zebrafish by adding an antibiotic to their water. The technique took a page from targeted cancer therapies, which work by using bacteria to direct enzymes to cancer cells and converting the enzymes into cell-killing toxins. But that mass-killing effect was too broad for what they had in mind, Mumm says.
“Those toxins kill cells in and around the area, which is what you want for cancer because you don’t want to leave anything behind,” he says. “We were more interested in using this theory in a cell-specific manner – to kill specific cells that are genetically expressing certain enzymes.”
It works by isolating specific cells like the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas, which are lost in diabetes, and destroying them through a targeted process called inducible cellular ablation. Then, scientists can use jellyfish proteins to light those cells and affected body systems, watch how the zebrafish react and how they regenerate them.
“We quickly realized that idea was applicable to more things that we originally wanted to apply it to, so we marched it over to the tech transfer office at Washington, where they got us excited about the idea of starting a company.” Mumm and Schroeder worked with the university’s business school to develop a business plan and Luminomics was born. The company was actually incorporated in 2002 but wasn’t fully functioning until 2004. Mumm moved the company to the incubator at GRU in 2008.
The future of Luminomics, Mumm says, is based on using zebrafish to streamline large-scale drug screenings, which, for now, are largely based on other animal models without much regenerative capacity. While those animals – particularly mice – have a genetic identity that is more like humans, zebrafish still have relevance, according to Mumm.
“You can build a car a lot of different ways, but at the end of the day, we all make cars,” he says. “Fish have proteins that do the same things in their bodies that they do in ours – like cause diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s. The individual pieces can vary while the function is the same.”
Because zebrafish only grow to around two inches and because their rudimentary body systems completely develop in about five days, Mumm and the staff of Luminomics can model the same disease over and over and watch how drugs affect it…quickly – something that’s particularly useful to pharmaceutical companies.
“The fish are really a rich (disease) modeling platform, and we can test more than 1,500 of them at one time, up to about 20,000 per day” he says. “The system is applicable to any disease linked to the loss of a functional cell type.”
The company is also working with Johns Hopkins University, which holds the largest repository of FDA approved compounds in the country, with the idea that those drugs could be repurposed for new indications. Mumm and his staff have developed a computerized model system that reports when anything “interesting” happens to the fish.
“The ultimate goal is finding a therapy that enables humans to regenerate lost cells,” he says. “What if there were drugs that could be used as bona fide cures instead of palliative treatments that slow disease progression? What if we were able to give people who suffer from these diseases the option of returning to full function?”
Developing new drug therapies to treat the most aggressive forms of cancer
SISENE Oncology is the new kid on the incubator block. The company just received a Venture Lab grant from the Georgia Research Alliance to help bring its operations to Georgia and develop a partnership with the GRU Cancer Center.
Dr. Olivier Rixe, Director of Experimental Therapeutics at the GRU Cancer Center, spent much of his early career studying under an international cancer pioneer. His mentor was French physician Jean Plouet, who co-discovered Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor protein, one of the main drug targets for cancer therapeutics.
The VEGF protein uses a specific pathway to signal the body to begin angiogenesis, which forms new blood vessels from existing ones – an important process in transitioning tumors from dormant or benign states to malignant. Drugs preventing that signal – called antioangiogenics – are the standard of care in many solid tumor cancers, Rixe says.
Plouet formed SISENE in 2007 in France, as an international biotech company focused on developing patented cancer drugs and opthalmalogic therapies. While studying anti-angiogenesis pathways and targets before he passed away in 2008, Plouet discovered a new molecule with significant anti-tumor effects called NOV C-ter, which could be a new therapy for some of the most devastating cancers.
The molecule works by acting on specific pathways to starve tumors and prevent the growth of new vessels, without some of the toxic effects of current therapies. Because forming new blood vessels is vital to normal body processes, people who take antiangiogenics can have complications with things like wound healing, heart and kidney function, fetal development and reproduction. Side effects of treatment with angiogenesis inhibitors can include problems with bleeding, clots in the arteries (with resultant stroke or heart attack), hypertension and protein in the urine, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Work at SISENE focuses on developing a new drug therapy targeting glioblastoma multiform, the most common type of malignant brain tumor, as well as other large solid tumors, including lung and colorectal cancers. Rixe will lead the team, which will include other GRU Cancer Center and SISENE scientists, as well as researchers from the National Cancer Institute and the University of Cincinnati.
“NOV C-ter is a very exciting, very promising new agent, and our objective is to be able to bring this and other cutting-edge treatment to the clinic, where they have the potential to improve the quality of life and life expectancy of our patients,” Rixe says.
GBM is a highly aggressive brain tumor. According to the American Cancer Society, there are 18,500 new cases of malignant brain tumors in the U.S., with 12,760 deaths attributed to these brain tumors annually. Improvements in diagnostics have resulted in a 300-percent increase in the number of new cases of these tumors. Currently the median survival for GBM is about 18 months.
Rixe, as Chief Scientific Officer of SISENE Oncology, is carrying on the work of his former mentor and helped develop the collaboration between the company, the Cancer Center and the incubator.
“We were able to find everything we needed in Augusta to be aggressive in getting this drug into trials,” Rixe says. “Being in an incubator in a scientific environment, where collaborators include basic scientists, where we have access to a modern cancer center and cardiovascular institute – all of it is very useful in developing a synergistic approach. Our hope is to move this drug into Phase I clinical trials by 2014.”