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UM Technology Launches Brain Imaging Company

Two new patents for brain imaging agents discovered at The University of Montana have produced a company called Rio Pharmaceuticals, which offers specifically designed molecules to image select biomarker proteins in the brain.

The new technology may help understand, diagnose and follow new therapies for neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases and neuropsychiatric conditions such as depression.

The lead inventor of the brain imaging agents is John Gerdes, an associate professor in UM’s Department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences. Gerdes’ work was funded, in part, by the National Institutes of Health.

“A fantastic team has come together to create this new business, which has licensed this technology from the University,” said Joe Fanguy, UM director of technology transfer. “We need to continue to strive to find these types of partnerships that can help researchers like John transfer their discoveries to a more clinical setting.”

Gerdes, whose department is based in UM’s College of Health Professions and Biomedical Sciences, has developed tracer molecules that target specific transporter proteins in the central nervous system. These molecules have quick-decaying radioactive atoms attached to them that allows for Positron Emission Tomography scanning. The PET scans detect the tracer molecules when they are bound to the biomarker protein inside the brain, allowing the biomarker proteins to be quantified.  

Neurotransmitters released from nerve endings often are recycled by a specific transporter protein. Such proteins typically pump the released transmitter molecule back into the nerve cell that released it. The PET scanning tracer molecules developed by Gerdes target this class of proteins.

If both the PET scan tracer molecule and a new drug interact at the same protein, the imaging agent also can determine to what degree the new drug occupies the target protein in the brain.

“We basically put a camera around whatever you administer this molecule to and then you are able to see how the molecule functions,” Gerdes said. “We can see exactly where it goes in the body. It’s real-time biochemistry.”

He said UM is in the final stages of patenting the chemical entities that interact with brain transport proteins. One patent issued during October, while the other is expected to issue in 2011. Gerdes said there are two distinct transporter proteins in the central nervous system that are being targeted by two different PET scan tracers he has discovered and initially developed.

The new PET imaging tracers offer tremendous clinical, commercial and drug-discovery opportunities, Gerdes said. So in 2008, he and his partners started Rio Pharmaceuticals to market the agents. The company now includes a strong team of scientists and physicians and employs nine people. More information about the firm is available at http://www.riopharmaceuticals.com.

Gerdes said the company is currently located in San Francisco because they need ready access to a biomedical isotope facility that generates the positron atoms the company uses for PET scan tracers. Additionally he said the company is raising capital to start human clinical trials. He said multi-center Phase II human clinical trials cost several million dollars. If all goes well, he estimates the new imaging agents could reach the clinic within four to five years.

Fanguy said once the company gets through the next pivotal commercialization phase, Montana is well positioned to serve as its home base because of ongoing biomedical research activities within the University system.

“Access to great research is key to growing young companies,” Gerdes said.

Fanguy said university research enterprises are great for Montana. 

“Last year The University of Montana pulled in $67 million in research grants, and 55 percent of that was spent on salaries in Montana,” he said, referencing the 2010 Growing Montana’s Economy report (http://www.bber.umt.edu/pubs/econ/universityreport-1.pdf). “That’s money spent locally that would not have been here otherwise. And more than 100 graduate assistantships were funded by those dollars.

“We are educating the next generation of the research community,” he said. “So there is tremendous educational impact, as well as the creation of intellectual property and the potential for spinoff companies.”