Morehouse School of Medicine Researchers Develop Drug to Protect Brain from Stroke and Neurotoxin Damage

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Stroke is the third leading cause of death in the United States, affecting more than six million people every year. Its impact on the African American community is even worse, with this minority group being two to three times more likely to die from stroke or suffer more severe long-term disability than its Caucasian counterpart. These startling statistics led a research team in the Neuroscience Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine to urgently search for better treatments for the disease.

After nearly 15 years of painstaking research, the team made a breakthrough discovery. They found that a naturally occurring human protein called neuregulin-1, or NRG-1, could help limit inflammation in brain cells after stroke or other trauma. Their study demonstrated that NRG-1 helps protect the brain even when it is administered more than 12 hours after the initial injury.

Currently there is only one type of drug approved to treat acute stroke, and it can only be effective when given within three hours of injury. This small window of time is unfortunately not along enough for most stroke victims. Most patients do not recognize the early symptoms of stoke, which may include confusion, numbness or loss of vision, and usually hope their symptoms will subside without medical treatment. Consequently, these patients may wait hours or sometimes days before seeking medical help, resulting in the difference between being permanently disabled and life or death.

"When the brain is damaged, whether it is from stroke, trauma or neurochemical attack, maximizing the number of cells that survive is the single most important factor for recovery," said Dr. Byron Ford, a professor in the School's Department of Neurobiology and principal investigator of the NRG Biotechnology research team.  "NRG-1 gives us a longer window to do just that, and it also has remarkable efficacy at reducing and preventing further inflammation and cell death in the brain."

The team's research was highlighted when Morehouse School of Medicine's NRG Biotechnology program - developed to commercialize the NRG-1 technology - was recognized as having the most competitive business plan among several competitors at the Southeast BIO Investor Forum. The organization is a regional not-for-profit that fosters the growth of the life sciences industry in the Southeastern United States.

"While we are honored by this recognition, we are more pleased that these discoveries could aid hundreds of thousands of Americans who suffer each year from stroke and brain trauma," said Dr. Ford. "The additional potential to aid first responders and others who may be exposed to neurotoxins domestically and overseas also represents a tremendous opportunity."

The group recently secured patent protection for its compounds and could be in a unique position to offer a new treatment option for victims whose strokes were caused by clotting in the brain or in arteries outside the brain. The protein would not only offer a new level of "neuroprotection" to millions of Americans who suffer strokes, but also those who experience traumatic brain injury, or are possibly exposed to neurotoxins. Approved stroke treatments are currently limited to only certain types of stroke characteristics, limiting their use to approximately 3 percent of stroke victims. Immediate treatment options are also severely limited for soldiers and public health workers who may be exposed to neurotoxins, creating potential opportunities with the U.S. government.

"We estimate the total domestic market opportunity is more than $400 million in the neurotoxin space and more than $3 billion for stroke treatment," said Jim Heitner, a member of the research team and CEO of Ripple Management, a technology commercialization company and consultant to MSM. "MSM's partnerships with the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense and other key stakeholders give us great confidence for the potential to advance NRG-1."

Prior to the Southeast BIO win, Morehouse School of Medicine had already been recognized as a rising star in Georgia's biotechnology community. The NRG Biotechnology program benefited from the Georgia Research Alliance's (GRA) Venture Lab initiative, which helps commercialize university research results.

GRA VentureLab funds can be used to pursue Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants, commercialization planning and regulatory studies that might not be covered by traditional federal research grants. The NRG-1 team is seeking additional funding for its next phases of development. Phase I clinical trials could begin as early as 2013.

Morehouse School of Medicine,
Dr. Byron Ford, Morehouse School of Medicine Department of Neurobiology, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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