Special Contributor to Silicon Hills News

Scientific research photo, licensed from iStockphotos

Scientific research photo, licensed from iStockphotos

Dr. Gregory Stein had never been to Austin when he relocated his fledgling drug development company here from San Diego, a city rich with life sciences and its related ecosystem.

“Entrepreneurs will do whatever it takes to make it work,” said Stein, president and CEO of Curtana Pharmaceuticals. “You follow the money, and for Curtana, right now, the money is in Texas.”

Last year, Curtana was awarded a $7.6 million grant to develop a drug for glioblastoma and other brain cancers.

The catch: the grantor – the state of Texas, through the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, or CPRIT – requires grantees to live in the Lone Star State and create jobs for Texans.

Stein had driven through Texas once, on a cross-country college road trip, but didn’t visit Austin. Sight unseen, he moved his family and the company targeting a transcription factor called Olig2, to Austin.
The drug concept first began with its patent holder, Dr. Santosh Kesari, a neuro-oncologist and Curtana’s co-founder and scientific advisor. Kesari was among scientists in Boston that discovered the Olig genes, which are paramount to brain development and brain cancer cell growth.

Kesari then moved to the University of California at San Diego, where he said he “interacted with many chemists in the drug development type of environment,” and created a computer model of Olig2.”

Using the 3D computer model, Kesari and others found compounds that targeted Olig2 were able to stop the growth of gliomas, the most common type of brain tumors, which originate in brain tissue called glial tissue.

“We found that it kills glioblastoma cells and makes them sensitive to radiation,” said Kesari, the senior author of an article about Olig2 published in the journal “Oncotarget” in October.

Meanwhile, the fight against glioblastomas had grown personal for Kesari, who said the cancer killed his aunt in 2011. Cancer experts say glioblastoma kill about 14,000 Americans each year, including Joseph “Beau” Biden, the son of Vice President Joe Biden in May; Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy in 2009 and Brittany Maynard, who chronicled her experience with glioblastoma and used Oregon’s assisted-suicide to end her life in 2014.

About half of Kesari’s patients at the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, Calif., suffer from a type of glioma, he said.

“It’s a hard disease, and there’ve been many drug failures in the past,” Kesari said. “It’s thought to be a small disease in terms of market, but I’m committed the next 10 years to finding a cure.”

Stein, who was working on pain research in San Diego, had already reached out to Kesari with questions about his work by the time their mutual friend – one of Kesari’s patients – died of glioblastoma in Oct. 2012.

“Watching someone who I cared for very much, and who was just so full of life and vivacious and strong, in the span of a year just deteriorate to nothing – it was tough,” Stein said. “It’s different when it’s personal.”

Kesari filed a patent on the research in 2012, and Stein, a doctor who got his MBA after several years of practice, set about finding funding, first with angel investors. Curtana –a British ceremonial sword of mercy – was born.

“I know the language of the science, but I’m not the expert drug developer,” said Stein in a recent interview in Curtana’s sleek, clean offices.

He soon learned about funding opportunities through CPRIT, which Stein called a “game-changer. Nobody’s doing what Texas is doing,” he said.

But the process is extremely competitive, Stein said, adding that it was helpful to tap into the Austin Technology Incubator at the University of Texas. If accepted into the incubator, startups pay at least $5,000 for management consulting and access to student interns.

When Cindy WalkerPeach, the life sciences program director at ATI, met Stein and Kesari, “I thought it was a bit of a long-shot,” she said of Curtana’s success.

But the company had a great management team, and the more she learned about the drug and the company, “the long shot became less and less so.”

imgres-2Curtana was one of about a dozen companies that gets into the incubator each year, and is among the recipients of CPRIT’s 919 grants totaling $1.4 billion.

In 2007, voters gave the state permission to sell up to $3 billion in bonds and use the cash for cancer research and prevention. Scandal soon followed, and CPRIT was revamped in 2013 to improve oversight.

While the controversy stalled the program for about a year, Stein said he works well with the new guard at CPRIT and may seek a second grant.

Under the terms of Curtana’s current three-year grant, it must create a dozen jobs, which they’re close to accomplishing, and raise half of the grant amount – Stein said so far, they’ve raised about $1 million. The first grant is only for pre-clinical work, Stein said, and Curtana is about one year away from beginning clinical trials.

Walking through his 5,000-square-foot office building, Stein explained how the drug is currently working in lab mice: after human cancer cells are injected in a mouse’s brain, Curtana’s scientists treat some of the mice. Of those that are treated for three weeks, Stein said, their median survival increased by 68 percent.

In humans, the median survival rate of someone with glioblastoma is 15 months, and there’s a three to six percent chance that a patient with the cancer will survive more than 36 months.

Critical to the process is getting the drug past the blood-brain barrier, which Curtana’s scientists have so far done successfully, Stein said. Eventually, the company’s leadership would like Curtana to be acquired or make an initial public offering, he said in a recent presentation to the Austin Technology Council.

“I’m pragmatic and understand that most things fail in this industry,” Stein said. “But we wouldn’t be working this hard if we didn’t think it was going to work.”