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New Knoxville biotech start-up selected for MassBioDrive accelerator program

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Orion Therapeutics, a Knoxville biotechnology company that has been operating in stealth mode for a little less than a year, has been selected to join the prestigious MassBioDrive accelerator program as a member of the 2022 cohort. The announcement was made yesterday, and the newest cohort includes two start-ups from Canada and one each from Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Nebraska.

The twice a year program is based out of Boston, MA and supports a small group of groundbreaking scientists by connecting them with a fundamental business curriculum, mentorship, industry executives, and equity-free prizes. More than 100 promising biotech companies compete for this program every year, with only six being selected. The eight-week hybrid accelerator began with yesterday’s announcement of the participants, runs through November 23, and concludes with a “Demo Day” on December 1.

Orion Therapeutics was founded by Richard (Trey) Fisher, inventor of a novel, nano-scale delivery system for RNA therapeutics and vaccines. He developed this technology as a former Ph.D. student for Deidra Mountain, an Associate Professor at University of Tennessee (UT) Health Science Center’s Graduate School of Medicine in Knoxville. Her preclinical research has resulted in the discovery of several gene therapy targets with the potential to revolutionize treatments for vascular disease patients.

“Our preclinical program in vascular gene therapy is currently focused on the translation of our RNA drug discovery research from the lab bench to the patient bedside. This has always been the ultimate goal,” Mountain says.

As a graduate student working at The University of Tennessee Medical Center, Fisher was able to overcome a key hurdle in the clinical translation of RNA therapeutics – the issue of delivery. “Through several years of hard work, we were able to develop a delivery system that provided solutions for our drug targets in vascular disease,” he says. “To our surprise, our delivery formulation also exhibited versatility in a multitude of other gene therapy models of disease, including cancer, infectious disease, and immunotherapies.”

You might be asking, “Why is this technology so important?”

“If we think of DNA as the ‘blueprint’ for all of our genes, the RNA molecule represents the ‘transcript’ of those genes that is used to produce proteins – the molecular machinery required for all cell function,” Fisher explains. “With the ability to harness RNA technology in medicine – think COVID-19 RNA vaccine – the potential to treat any disease that was previously deemed ‘undruggable’ has become a reality.”

To realize the full potential of this technology, there has to be a safe and effective delivery system that can be targeted to a specific disease site. “For instance, if you are developing an RNA drug for cancer, you can’t just inject RNA into your body and expect it to work,” he says, explaining that “your body will just break it down.” Instead, the RNA drug payload needs to be packaged in a targeted drug delivery vehicle. Orion Therapeutics has recently validated its targeted delivery system in a vascular disease model and intends to expand this technology by creating a library of cell and organ-specific delivery systems that can be used for a multitude of disease platforms.

Fisher enrolled at UT, Knoxville in 2005, following his high school sweetheart and now wife of 11 years. While attending the university, he earned three degrees – B.S. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, M.S. in Kinesiology, and Ph.D. in Comparative and Experimental Medicine. In pursuit of medical school, Fisher began working as a research associate in Mountain’s Vascular Research Lab where “I got to meet a lot of wonderful people in the medical field,” he explained, “but the stress and long hours of many of my colleagues was eye-opening.” The experience convinced him that he did not want to be a medical doctor, so Fisher elected to pursue his doctoral degree with Mountain as his advisor.

Up to now, Fisher has self-funded the start-up through his private consulting work, but has several pending announcements that, along with the yesterday ‘s from “MassBioDRIVE,” will help advance commercialization plans at Orion Therapeutics.

“The university and the local community have given so much to our family, and it is important to me to build this company in Knoxville, TN. Everything we need is right here,” he says.

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