Raleigh biotechnology company Agile Sciences has landed a $1.5 million National Institutes of Health grant to help develop its cystic fibrosis therapy derived from sea sponges.

Agile was spun out of North Carolina State University with the help of a $30,000 startup loan from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. The company’s technology platform capitalizes on a chemical produced by the sea sponge to break up bacterial clumps called biofilms.

The latest NIH grant supports pre-clinical development of Agile’s proprietary Agilyte anti-biofilm molecules for treating lung infections of cystic fibrosis patients. The two-year project will build upon promising data that was generated as a result of a previous NIH Phase I grant award.

The Phase II project will be led by Principal Investigator Angela Pollard, Ph.D., in collaboration with Richard Boucher Jr., M.D., Kenan Professor of Medicine and director of the Cystic Fibrosis Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Matthew Wolfgang, Ph.D., associate professor of microbiology and immunology at the UNC School of Medicine.

Biofilm: Funky to Fatal

Probably the most well-known example of a biofilm is dental plaque – a buildup of bacteria in a form so resilient that it requires periodic scraping in a dentist’s office to get rid of it.

That’s one of the big problems with biofilms – they’re extremely hard to get rid of. And they form in all kinds of places. They resist traditional antibiotics, so they’re dangerous when they invade humans, animals and plants.

“These bacteria are sort of like people,” explained John Cavanagh, Ph.D., who co-founded Agile with fellow NCSU professor Christian Melander, Ph.D., in 2007.

“When they communicate well, they find there’s safety in numbers. They join together and form these protective clumps. But we break down their communication channels with our technology, so they can’t sense each other or indeed the outside world, and they only worry about defending themselves rather than the whole group. That makes them weak and vulnerable.”

Cystic fibrosis symptoms include a buildup of thick mucus in the lungs, which can leave them vulnerable to bacterial infection. Though Agile’s technology can stop biofilm buildup in everything from plants to battleships, the company has decided to narrow its initial focus to commercializing its cystic fibrosis therapy.

Funding Supports Important Studies

“This award speaks to the success of the Phase I studies and the potential of Agile Sciences’ technology to provide a therapeutic advantage in the treatment of lung infections in cystic fibrosis patients,” said Eva Garland, Ph.D., Agile Sciences’ vice president of research and development.

“We are particularly grateful to NCBiotech because our original Company Inception Loan of $30,000 supported the preparation and submission of our Phase I application for this project. In addition to our Phase I and Phase II NIH STTR awards, we have also received funding from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation for this application.

“Therefore, we have successfully leveraged our original NCBiotech loan with over $2 million of follow-on funding for cystic fibrosis research and development. And this is in addition to the nearly $4 million of funding that we have received in other therapeutic areas that also was made possible by our original NCBiotech funding.”

Pollard added, “We are also grateful to be collaborating with Dr. Boucher and Dr. Wolfgang, who are leaders in cystic fibrosis research. Their expertise will be instrumental in continuing to advance pre-clinical development of Agile Sciences’ therapeutic for cystic fibrosis.”

(C) N.C. Biotechnology Center