PART 1: Researchers want to prove “what we have works”

Solex(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a two-part series on Solex, LLC, a start-up founded on technologies licensed from the University of Tennessee Research Foundation {UTRF}. It is part of our continuing series profiling companies founded on UTRF inventions.)

By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.

“I need to prove that what we have works,” Jonathan Wall says about the technology that he and others have been pursuing for at least a decade.

Over that period, the team – all part of the Graduate School of Medicine at the University of Tennessee (UT) Medical Center – has faced a number of hurdles, but it is clear that their collective persistence has not waned.

After all, they are focused on a rare disease – amyloidosis – that is diagnosed in only about 3,000 Americans every year. It occurs when abnormal proteins begin to build up in internal organs. The symptoms vary widely, making timely diagnosis difficult. The work of physicians is further impeded because of the absence of an imaging technique available in the U.S. to detect the disease.

Today, their efforts are concentrated in Solex, LLC, a three-year old start-up that has licensed the underlying technology from the UT Research Foundation. How the start-up came to be and the many hurdles the researchers have faced illustrate the challenges any life science company has to overcome.

The team behind Solex includes Jonathan Wall, Stephen Kennel, Emily Martin, Tina Richey, and Alan Stuckey. We recently caught-up with Wall, Chief Executive Officer of the start-up.

The Welsh native came to this country nearly 20 years ago as a post doc for Alan Solomon, the nationally-recognized UT Medical Center researcher.

“I kept quiet for two years and tried to learn everything he knew,” Wall says in describing Solomon’s work that was focused on a form of amyloid disease related to cancer. “It was a horrible disease.”

By the early 2000s, Solomon and his research team had made significant progress.

“We developed an antibody that could be a new therapy for these (amyloidosis) patients,” Wall said. The technology was licensed for a few years to Amgen, a global giant in the biotechnology sector. Eventually, the patent reverted back to UT.

For the last five years, Wall and the other members of the team have been focused on the “need to better visualize this disease in patients,” in essence a non-invasive approach that can secure U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval.

Physicians in Europe have employed a protocol since 1980 to determine if individuals have amyloidosis. It involves isolating a protein in the donor blood, combining it with a radioactive agent, injecting the “radiotracer” in the patient, and imaging the distribution of the amyloid disease using standard medical imaging techniques.

“The FDA will not allow that procedure here,” Wall explained, a fact that makes their research that much more important.

“We discovered a small group of peptides that can be manufactured in the lab,” he said. “When you radiolabel them and inject them into mice, you can easily see” if the subject has the disease.

The team disclosed their invention, and the UT Research Foundation filed a patent application.

“We did not think about starting a company at the time,” Wall said.

NEXT: Sometimes, the best laid plans change.

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