RALEIGH – If you want to know what Collaborations Pharmaceuticals is all about, start with its name.

The Raleigh-based startup is in the business of collaboration. It partners with the academic community, foundations and other companies to develop drugs that treat rare and neglected diseases.

The goal is to advance promising new therapies from early stage development to clinical trials. The company has been  working on possible solutions for COVID-19 since early this year.

“The bulk of our pipeline has come through collaboration,” said company founder and CEO Sean Ekins. Ekins is a veteran of big pharma who worked with both Pfizer and Lilly earlier in his career. And he’s entrepreneur-in-residence at the Eshelman School of Pharmacy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Collaboration Pharmaceuticals


“When I started the company, we had a number of academic partnerships through my previous job,” he added. “So I just took the opportunity to work with those groups on new neglected disease projects. ”

The inclination to collaborate also was driven partly out of necessity. When the company opened its doors in 2015, it had no lab facilities. So resource sharing was important.

Sean Ekins

The lab gap has since been remedied. Collaborations Pharma has rented space on the Centennial Campus at North Carolina State University for three years. The company, while not affiliated with N.C. State, has partnered on projects with several programs there – toxicology, veterinary science, engineering and chemistry among them.

The majority of Collaborations’ funding comes from federal grants to promote the discovery of drugs for rare and neglected diseases, an area often overlooked by large pharma companies. Over the past five years, the company has secured $7.5 million in backing via this route.

Diseases are classified as rare if they affect fewer than 200,000 people in the United States and as neglected if few or no drugs are available to treat them. COVID-19 initially came into focus as a rare disease. But that rapidly changed as the number of coronavirus patients exploded.

The nearly 7,000 rare diseases that exist in the U.S. today affect tens of millions of people. The mission of organizations like Collaborations is to complete the initial research that gets the ball rolling toward eventual treatments.

The company uses machine learning software – which finds patterns in data sets to drive scientific decisions – and other tools in its arsenal to translate research into new treatments. It analyzes publically available data, organizes and integrates that information, and then builds models to find the most promising molecules to treat specific diseases.

Collaborations Pharma uses that same approach to curate data and build models for other companies, helping its contract research clients analyze their own information, screen for various molecules, or develop drug discovery or toxicology models.

In search of solutions for COVID-19

The company is using its experience from past viral outbreaks – including  HIV, Ebola and Zika – to explore potential treatments for the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Ekins said the journey began after he attended a January lecture by Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the government’s chief COVID-19 expert.

“Fauci’s remarks left no doubt that it was going to be a grim year,” he recalled. “We started to plan for what would happen next. We prepared to work from home. And we discussed how we could use the experience we’ve gained from previous virus outbreaks to repurpose drugs against COVID-19.”

The company has since curated data from a variety of COVID-19 sources, including preprints and published studies where compounds have been screened in the lab. It uses machine learning to prioritize molecules that might be effective in treating the disease. It also has called upon its strong collaborator network in Brazil and the U.S to help test compounds against the virus, which requires labs specially designated for that purpose.

Ekins said the Collaborations model is well suited to a rapidly moving outbreak like COVID-19. “It shows what can be done with minimal resources when you can leverage a network of partners,” he pointed out. “If we can make progress toward identifying drugs to treat this virus, then we can use the same approach for other diseases.”

Ana Puhl

Ana Puhl, Ph.D., senior scientist at Collaborations, has so far tested dozens of FDA-approved drugs or clinical candidates against specific coronavirus proteins and found several that show promise. These compounds have been prioritized for further analysis.

Ekins said Collaborations is first looking at molecules already in companies’ pipelines, as well as older medicines that didn’t get approved, to see if they’re potentially active against the coronavirus. “Our main focus is on repurposing drugs that are easily translated to COVID-19 treatments,” he said.

“Our challenge as a small company is that we and our collaborators have to do it all,” Ekins pointed out. “We’re in this race with some massive companies with huge financial resources.”

So can Collaborations have an impact? “That’s where we’re aiming, but at some point we’ll need the resources of a large company to manufacture the molecules and do the clinical trials,” he added.

Collaborations Phama currently has 10 full-time employees and a number of outside consultants. It has been granted eight orphan drug designations across five rare or neglected diseases. These provide tax credits of up to 50 percent for clinical testing and seven years of market exclusivity.

(C) N.C. Biotech Center