Technology could speed drugs to market

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Print this page by Heather B. Hayes

More than 90 percent of pharmaceutical drug candidates fail to make it through human clinical trials. As a result, the pharmaceutical industry typically spends $800 million to get a single drug to market. The problem? Scientists cannot predict in the laboratory or even during animal studies how a drug will affect the human body. 

But the drug development process could change, thanks to an invention by two University of Virginia researchers, Brett Blackman and Brian Wamhoff.  Their proprietary technology, known as HemoShear, can mimic the forces of blood flowing through a human artery in a laboratory environment.

“We can impart those hemodynamic forces onto cells in a Petri dish, and so now when you test drugs you can get a much more predictive response of what will really happen in a human because the cells are acting like they do in a human,” says James C. Powers, chairman and CEO of HemoShear LLC. The startup company, launched by the two researchers and several investors in 2008, has 4,000 square feet of laboratory space and 12 employees in Charlottesville.

HemoShear will not sell its human surrogate technology devices. Instead, it will provide pharmaceutical companies with research and drug discovery collaboration services. In that capacity, HemoShear researchers can study not just potential drug therapies but also disease biology, such as diabetes and arteriosclerosis, which will help the development of more effective drug compounds.

“We’re really talking about accelerating the best, most effective drug candidates towards the marketplace and also avoiding the really, really expensive drug failures that help make some prescription drugs so expensive,” Powers says. Since most drugs travel through the circulatory system, he notes that the company’s devices could be relevant to nearly all drug candidates.

Company officials also expect to expand their offerings. Last October, the company formed a new division called HepaShear to develop an advanced model of the human liver. HepaShear plans to focus on re-creating the biological functions of the blood-brain barrier, the kidney and other organs.

If all goes according to plan, says Powers, HemoShear researchers could play a role in helping the pharmaceutical industry advance much improved therapies for a range of acute and chronic conditions, including hepatitis, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and kidney disease.

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