Chemistry Professor Nigel Priestley has worked at UM 12 years and formed the company Promiliad Biopharma, which may someday cure some of the world’s deadliest diseases.
UM professor's biopharmaceutical company
seeks answers for deadly diseases
By Chad Dundas
Nigel Priestley stores the past decade of his life’s work in an ordinary-looking refrigerator at a nondescript lab on the third floor of the UM Chemistry Building.
Tucked away against a bank of windows at the back of the lab, the fridge is white and blocky and — except for the small orange biohazard sticker mounted front and center — looks very much like something you might find in a residential kitchen. Inside, however, it’s anything but ordinary.
When Priestley pulls open the door, he reveals that the refrigerator is stacked with small plastic racks, each bristling with rows of tiny vials. Each vial contains a small amount of a different molecular compound the UM chemistry professor and his fledgling company, Promiliad Biopharma, have synthesized and are now screening in hopes they might one day be used to cure some of the world’s deadliest diseases.
These, he explains while pulling out a rack, are the libraries.
Since 2002 Priestley and his partners at Promiliad have been hard at work, tiptoeing through the painstaking process of first genetically modifying existing antibiotic bacteria, arranging the resulting new compounds into libraries and then assaying them to find out which, if any, might be used to fight cancer, viruses or bacterial infections such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), Vancomycin-resistant Enterococci and Cryptosporidium. To date the company has some 3,000 compounds in its libraries. If it is successful in proving that just one of them is effective on any one of a vast number of diseases, it will mean the creation of a whole new class of drugs to aid the management of the most treatment-resistant ailments — medicine, Priestley says, that’s badly needed.
“One of the big problems in health care is antibiotic resistance,” he says. “If you go into a hospital, you’ve got a one-in-10 chance of coming out with a bug that you didn’t have when you went in there. Bacteria are always going to generate resistance to drugs that are in the clinic, and the real problem is that we’ve only come up with four new classes of antibiotics in the past 30 years. There are a lot of new drugs, but they’re all more cephalosporins or penicillins or ‘me too’ kind of drugs. Very rarely do you come up with a new class of drugs.”
How close are they? Closer than you might think.
Priestley estimates that right now Promiliad could sell its compound libraries to other researchers or another pharmaceutical company for several million dollars. They could, in a sense, get rich quick, cashing in their work up to this point on a small fortune to let somebody else do the tedious work of assaying each compound in each library against a wide catalog of diseases and a seemingly limitless number of possible pitfalls.
“Of course,” he says, flashing a grin that’s half idealistic academic, half shrewd entrepreneur, “we would never do that.”
At his core, Priestley is a chemistry professor’s chemistry professor. Spend five minutes talking to the affable, quick-witted Englishman who came to UM from Ohio State University in 1999, and you can tell there are two reasons he and Promiliad won’t consider selling their libraries. First, because they’re having too much fun messing around with them and, second, because they could be nearing a breakthrough worth far more than what they might fetch for bowing out now.
After nine years of examination and assays, Promiliad has two compounds that are taking baby steps toward the holy grail of biopharmaceutical testing — an “investigational new drug” (or IND) filing and entry into the early phases of human trials. As it stands, one of Promiliad’s compounds already shows efficacy in treating MRSA in mice, and the other compound is on the verge of beginning animal testing. In other words, it shouldn’t be long now.
“I would trade every one of my scientific publications just for getting one IND application passed,” Priestley says. “Of course, it’s a long row to hoe before you get it in the clinic, but animal study is the first really big hurdle, because when it works there you know you’ve got something that isn’t just pie in the sky.”
Within about 24 months, the company should know if either of its compounds will pass muster, or if it has to begin all over again with the frustration of testing new compounds against new targets. It’s a progression Priestley describes as “like sitting on an old bed.” Push down on one spot, a problem pops up somewhere else. Shift the weight of your focus onto that area, the springs on the opposite side might start to creak and groan.
“Think of it as a funneling process,” he says. “You start off with thousands of compounds. You get rid of all those that aren’t active against the target bacteria. Then you get rid of all those that kill mammalian cells. Then you get rid of all those that won’t be soluble. Then you get rid of all those that aren’t active in an animal model. Then you get rid of all those that fail in clinical trials. At the end of the day, after maybe eight, nine years, you end up with one compound.”
Well, one or two.
If either of Promiliad’s compounds land in hospitals, it will amount to an enormous academic and financial windfall for the company’s founders and, by extension, for UM.
As it stands, Priestley and his business partners rank in the top 10 in Montana for National Institutes of Health grants, totaling more than $3.5 million worth of research during the past several years. All in all, its current prospects aren’t too shabby for a venture Priestley freely admits has been a difficult learning experience for a bunch of scientists trying to forge their way in the private sector and one that began, at least partly, out of frustration that they couldn’t even get an NIH grant when they started applying for them back in 2002.
Though in recent years the company has successfully procured grants, Priestley says Promiliad’s main focus is advancing to the point where it generates enough revenue to fund its own research moving forward. That’ll happen — and then some — if either of its current products pan out, lead to successful IND filings and then get licensed to larger pharmaceutical companies. It could also mean earnings for Priestley and his business partners that go far beyond a mere $10 million to $20 million.
If neither works out? Then the company goes back to the fridge to find a new compound from its libraries. For his part, Priestley isn’t holding his breath. He loves his day job anyway.
“Yes, there is the potential for a lot of money to be involved, but you can’t rely on that coming in,” he says. “We’re doing this because it’s fun to do … If they said, ‘Here’s a million dollars, but you’re not allowed to do research anymore,’ I wouldn’t take it. Fifty million? Maybe.”
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