Editor’s note: BioWatch is a regular feature on Fridays.Kucera Pharmaceutical Co. says one of its novel anti-viral compounds showed confirmed activity against the virus that causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

SARS is the often deadly pneumonia-like illness that popped up in the Far East and caused widespread fear last year and reappeared briefly in Asia this year.

Russ Read, Kucera chief executive officer, tells Local Tech Wire, “This is an exciting and intriguing finding and we’re delighted.” He says the company’s chief scientific officer, Dr. Ronald A. Fleming arranged to send some of its compounds to the National Institute of Health (NIH) for testing and “they came back with this finding,” says Read.

Headquartered in Winston-Salem, Kucera is a spin-off of Wake Forest University Health Services and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has a laboratory in Durham.

It has patented several novel antiviral and anti-cancer agents based on its technology. Read says that in simple terms, Kucera’s technology disturbs the ability of a virus to assemble an envelope over its core structure. “Our technology interferes with the reassembling of the virus, and the defective viruses can’t reproduce,” he explains.

Read says Kucera has filed for NIH grants to back up development of the potential anti-SARS agent. “The grants are currently under review.” He says the periodic nature of a disease like SARS or the flu makes commercial development of agents to fight them difficult. So, Read says, a public-private partnership might be the way to develop this compound.

Read also says more news about Kucera is due early next week.

Kucera is only one of numerous Triad-based biotech companies. Read says that he attended a merger and acquisitions conference at the NC Biotech Center earlier this week and “I looked around the room and about a third of the biotech companies were from outside the Triangle.”

Targacept gets press

Targacept Inc., the Winston-Salem company that evolved from an R.J. Reynolds tobacco company research unit, is still getting good press from its connection to research into medical uses of nicotine. Shari Roan quotes the company and a Duke University researcher in a March 1 article in the Los Angeles Times.

The article begins on a common note in pieces about nicotine research.

“Separated from cigarettes, molecularly tweaked and carefully administered, nicotine holds promise as a powerful treatment for a variety of illnesses, from Alzheimer’s disease to depression and schizophrenia,” Roan writes.

Targacept does not actually work with nicotine itself, however, points out Debra Perret, the company’s community affairs and grants specialist.

“We are creating new chemical entities that have the positive therapeutic effects that we observed when studying nicotine,” Perret explains.

“Our compounds work on the acetylcholine receptors (sometimes called nicotinic receptors) and are proving effective in treating the afflictions we are studying,” Perret says, “yet we’ve been able to avoid or minimize the unpleasant side effects that accompany nicotine usage.”

The LA Times piece also quotes Duke University’s Edward Levin, a behavioral pharmacologist and nicotine researcher at Duke University. Levin who notes, “We still need a way of further improving nicotine itself to take it all the way to being good medical therapy.”

What intrigues reporters about this story is that much of the research on behaviorial and other effects of nicotine came out of research by cigarette makers.

Nicotine latches onto acetylcholine receptors, which are located throughout the body, but play a large role in the brain. There, they help regulate the release of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, which affect emotion, memory, and learning.

The LA Times article notes that Targacept, a name derived from “targeted receptors,” is testing numerous versions of nicotine-like drugs on disorders, with a lead compound aimed at ulcerative colitis.

Breast cancer pap smear?

Duke University says a breast cancer test in clinical studies there and at other medical centers can reveal breast cancer brewing in a few cells, soon enough to stop it from developing.

“This is potentially the ‘breast pap smear’ we never had before,” says Victoria Seewaldt, M.D., breast oncologist at the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Developed at the University of Kansas Medical Center and refined at Duke’s Cancer Center, the test is ongoing clinical trials at three centers nationally.

Seewaldt says the test is far more sensitive than a mammogram because a pathologist analyzes each cell for changes common to many breast cancers. Research shows that even a smattering of abnormal cells confers a four-fold increase in a woman’s risk of breast cancer.

Seewaldt says 90 percent of breast cancers develop randomly in women with no family history of the disease. “The new test will tell a woman early on if a preventative treatment is really working,” she says.

The test even points to a treatment, because it detects the presence or absence of a gene called RAR beta, which regulates how breast cells use vitamin A to maintain proper health. If the gene is present, vitamin A can do its job, if not, the cells start on the road toward cancer, the research shows.

“A woman who shows even a sprinkling of cells without RAR beta will be given a preventative agent such as beta-carotene, flax seed oil, tamoxifen or a COX 2 inhibitor to determine if one of these agents eradicates the abnormal cells,” Seewaldt says.

The test is inexpensive and simple to administer, so it may become widely available following clinical trials. It’s currently available only at the three clinical trial sites, Duke, Kansas, and the Richard Solove Research Institute at Ohio State University.

Kucera Pharmaceutical: www.kucerapharma.com

Targacept: www.targacept.com

Duke Medical News: www.dukemednews.org