CHAPEL HILL — Getting a stuffy head or nose is as common as the common cold. But what the average person sees as a run-of-the-mill annoyance or part of being sick UNC-Chapel Hill associate professor Sam Lai envisions as a breakthrough opportunity to keep people healthier.

Lai and his team at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy discovered that when pathogens – viruses, bacterium or other microorganisms that cause disease – can be trapped in mucus, they can be rapidly eliminated, blocking infections. That led him in 2016 to found Mucommune, a startup company that harnesses antibody mucin interactions to prevent or treat infectious diseases.

“If you can block pathogens from penetrating mucus, you can prevent the spread of infections locally… or prevent infections from transmitting altogether,” says Lai, associate professor at the pharmacy school and director of its pharmaco-engineering program.

Mucommune’s muco-trapping antibody technology enables antibodies – proteins in the immune system that fight intruders in the body – to immobilize viral and bacterial pathogens in different mucosal secretions, including respiratory airways, the gastrointestinal tract and the female reproductive tract.

UNC-Chapel Hill pharmacy professor and startup founder Sam Lai, Credit: Sarah Daniels, Innovate Carolina

For example, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) causes infections of the lungs and respiratory tract, and it’s a common virus that affects children. According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in the United States nearly all children become infected with RSV by age two, with 75,000 to 125,000 hospitalized each year. Around the world, RSV affects an estimated 64 million people and causes more than 150,000 deaths each year.

Currently, there is no vaccine or treatment for RSV, but Lai and his team are targeting the virus as they develop antibodies to treat respiratory infections. An engineer by trade, Lai does not have a medical or biotechnology background, but he knew he was onto something important with the scientific discoveries that led him to launch Mucommune.

“We wanted to advance something that would have a health benefit, and we took interest in two of the mucosal surfaces- airways in the lungs and the female reproductive tract,” he adds. “In the lungs, there are many respiratory infections where there are no effective treatments available. We took inspiration in antibodies and discovered a real function for them in mucus.”

As he and his team continued to work on the muco-trapping antibody technology, they discovered they were making progress in both respiratory health and female reproductive health. As a result, the company split and formed Inhalon Biopharma to focus on the respiratory work, raising more than $4.0 million in non-dilutive funding, as well as securing initial investments from Breakout Labs, a fund that supports scientist-entrepreneurs as they transition their technologies out of the lab and into the market.

As the team explored applications in female reproductive health, it focused on addressing the lack of non-hormonal contraception. Many women do not like hormonal contraceptives due to side effects such as headaches, weight gain and mood changes; others have medical contraindications against hormonal contraceptives. With this research in mind, Lai and the team began to develop antibodies that could block sperm through mucus. As a result, they are working to use the muco-trapping antibody technology to develop a safe, groundbreaking non-hormonal contraceptive.

“My approach was unconventional and, as a result, it was very, very difficult to get funding on this topic. The grant from the Eshelman Institute really allowed me to keep pursuing the work. It would have taken us years longer without the critical resources”

Funding success built on early support

The work of Mucommune is getting attention, with Lai and his team receiving more than $5 million in six separate federal grants.  They are also part of a consortium that was awarded $7.8 million from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to bring the first anti-sperm antibodies for contraception into the clinic.

As a Carolina faculty member, Lai was able to access various resources and networks across the University and in the UNC-Chapel Hill entrepreneurial community to grow Mucommune.

“The Eshelman Institute for Innovation Microincubator labs gave us the environment and space needed to get the work going when we didn’t have much money to start. It was exceedingly important,” he adds.

Research team member at work in the lab. Credit: Sarah Daniels, Innovate Carolina

In addition, Lai received grants and support from other groups including the NC TraCS Institute, KickStart Venture Services and the UNC Office of Technology Commercialization.

“The University is very supportive of faculty entrepreneurship. Part of the support is reflected in the number of seasoned entrepreneurs that the school has helped make available to faculty,” says Lai. “Their feedback is invaluable in being able to recognize the spectrum of challenges we faced particularly beyond the immediate science, the different ways to solve problems, as well as the network with people who could offer additional guidance. The people at UNC are the single greatest resource.”

While not working on his research or startup companies, Lai can be found at the E(I) Lab, an experiential education program he created that brings together students from diverse disciplines across UNC to conceive, develop and test innovative solutions to unmet needs in healthcare.

“I don’t really consider my work to be work. When most people work, they see it as something that drains their energy,” he adds. “But if your work is your hobby, you are able to devote more time and effort to it than you otherwise would. For me, that’s the key and a blessing of being faculty. You have the freedom to choose what you want to do.”

(c) Innovate Carolina