Zen-Bio, a Research Triangle Park biotechnology and contract research firm, has landed another in a string of National Institutes of Health grants – this one for $224,000 to help in the global fight against obesity.

Zen-Bio, which is observing its 20th anniversary this year, is a leading provider of research tools such as specialized cell cultures for the study of human metabolic disease. This newly awarded phase one Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant will support the company’s work to develop a novel human brown fat screening tool that is not currently available to researchers.

The company says the brown adipocyte system can be used to identify biomarkers and validate existing drug targets for the development of anti-obesity therapeutics.

Will Plentl, Zen-Bio chief operating officer. Photo courtesy of Zen-Bio.

More than a decade ago the North Carolina Biotechnology Center began helping Zen-Bio grow, providing numerous grants and other support that also helped open the path to SBIR and other funding. NCBiotech support to Zen-Bio has included two Collaborative Funding Grants totaling $250,000 to research scientists who helped the company commercialize technologies, $235,000 in loans, and $95,960 in Industrial Fellowships.

The return on that investment has been substantial; in recent years, besides the newest $224,000 award, Zen-Bio has received other major SBIR grants, including:

Two phase two NIH SBIR grants totaling nearly $1.9 million to help commercialize its line of synthetically grown human cells for use by scientists studying obesity, diabetes, and common cancers;

An earlier $200,000 phase one SBIR grant to develop a way to differentiate breast cancer cell types, improving the way they are isolated and cultured.

According to the NIH website, Phase I SBIR awards “normally do not exceed $150,000 total costs for 6 months.” Zen-Bio Chief Operating Officer Will Plentl said the company requested the higher amount for this grant, “and we got it!”