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October 16, 2023 | Tom Ballard

Three UT Health Science Center licensees earn SBIRs and STTRs

All three awards total about $2.5 million and include two spinoffs founded by UTHSC researchers.

Three licensees – two spinoffs founded by researchers at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) and the other a long-standing partner – have received funding from the highly competitive Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs.

The companies and their awards are:

  • Oncternal Therapeutics Inc. received a $1.8 million SBIR award, $350,000 of which is earmarked for preclinical development of a molecule developed in the UTHSC College of Pharmacy and College of Medicine to treat Kennedy’s Disease, a rare progressive neurodegenerative disease caused by an abnormal androgen receptor protein. The research team includes Ramesh Narayanan, Professor and Interim Dean for Research in the College of Medicine, and Duane Miller, Professor Emeritus in the College of Pharmacy.
  • Oak Ridge Therapeutic Discovery (ORRxD) LLC received a $249,658 Phase I STTR award to optimize small molecules to treat age-related and disuse osteoporosis. The compound, developed through a multicampus collaboration between UTHSC and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK), inhibits adipogenesis (formation of fat cells from stem cells) in vitro, and stimulates osteoblast-mediated bone formation while inhibiting bone marrow fat accumulation in vivo. Funding will support a study to de-risk these novel chemical mechanomimetics. The research team includes Darryl Quarles, Professor, and Zhousheng Xiao, Associate Professor, both in the College of Medicine; Wei Li, Distinguished Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Director of the Drug Discovery Center in the College of Pharmacy; and Jeremy Smith, Professor at UTK and Director of the UT/Oak Ridge National Laboratory Center for Molecular Biophysics.
  • SEAK Therapeutics LLC received a $429,932 Phase I STTR to advance the pre-clinical studies of the compound JW-65, a selective TRPC3 ion channel inhibitor, for the treatment of seizures and epilepsy. This patented compound, which has clinically promising metabolic stability and safety profiles, was developed in the College of Pharmacy. It has good brain penetration and retention, directly binds to TRPC3, and shows promising efficacy in several acute seizure models. Funding will support preclinical studies to thoroughly de-risk JW-65 as a potentially viable clinical candidate for targeted epilepsy therapy. The research team includes Wei Li along with Jianxiong Jiang, Associate Professor, and Zhongzhi Wu, Associate Professor, both in the College of Pharmacy.

“The impact these awards have in relation to their actual dollar amounts is huge,” said Todd Ponzio, Vice President of the UT Research Foundation, which is the custodian of all intellectual property coming out of UTHSC and the UT System institutions. “SBIRs and STTRs provide social validation essential for building a business resumé. These awards show the science, research, and individuals have been vetted by a group of research and academic peers and judged to have tremendous potential. Securing an SBIR or STTR speaks to the sustainability of a business and helps establish credibility to show other funders.”


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