Our unparalleled biodiversity and abundance of creepy crawlies makes North Queensland the perfect backdrop for the first regional biotech startup out of James Cook University to hook into their groundbreaking research program targeting autoimmune diseases.
Introducing a bloodsucking organism into our body to combat an attack on our immune system. Sounds like the plot of a sci-fi film, right? Well, meet the protagonist of this spine-tingling storyline; the humble hookworm. Yes, the parasite that is well-known for causing infections in unassuming human beings who tend to live in poorly-sanitised regions of the tropics. THAT hookworm! But, thanks to a multi-million-dollar injection by a group of forward-thinking investors, new technologies being developed by a newly-formed North Queensland biotech company could potentially save millions of people around the world from a lifetime of suffering from autoimmune diseases.
“Paragen Bio is all about trying to exploit that millennia of host and parasite co-evolution to develop next generation therapeutics inspired by nature,” Paragen Head of Research, Professor Alex Loukas explained.
“Rather than designing drugs from scratch or modelling interactions on a computer, we’ve gone to what we believe is one of the most exquisitely-adapted examples in nature of a host-parasite relationship – the interaction between hookworms and their human hosts. Hookworms secrete proteins into their host tissues to suppress inflammation and facilitate their long-term survival, and we plan to exploit this fascinating biology to develop drugs inspired by nature.”
For the past eight years, Alex and his small research team at James Cook University’s (JCU) Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine (AITHM) in Cairns have been studying parasitic hookworms. Their research was enough to pique the interest of a number of investors, including venture capital firms OneVentures and Brandon Capital, and international biopharmaceutical company AbbVie. Together, they formed a funding syndicate to invest $6 million to aid Alex and his Paragen Bio team in their innovative work developing therapeutic approaches to help in the treatment of autoimmune diseases, making them JCU’s first ever biotech startup and one of just a handful in North Queensland.
So far, the hypothesis is good for the hundreds of thousands of Australians with a debilitating gut disease.
“We’ve been working with Dr. John Croese, who’s essentially the ‘Godfather’ of this area, conducting clinical trials on people with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and coeliac disease, which has formed a real potential for the development of drugs to treat sufferers of these diseases,” Alex revealed.
“John knew that hookworms could suppress inflammation in the gut, so he asked the question in his clinic – what happens if I give people with IBD or coeliac disease a handful of hookworms? At the end of his clinical trials, most of his patients responded favourably. We had enough evidence that the hookworm had therapeutic benefits, but trying to turn a worm infection into a drug to treat millions of people around the world isn’t feasible. After a lot of studies in the laboratory we were able to prove that you don’t actually need the worm itself to get the therapeutic benefits. Instead, we can inject people with the worm saliva.”
Alex said their investors, along with a large chunk of federal funding, has provided Paragen Bio with the necessary support to make the critical step from research towards eventually trialing a potential treatment at the end of their two-year program.
“People have never tried to treat an autoimmune disease with a worm protein before,” he stated.
“There are a lot of drugs out there, but they cost a fortune and they don’t work for many people. There’s a lot of hurdles to overcome and regulation bodies aren’t used to seeing these sorts of drugs being put in front of them. There’s a lot of work to do over the next couple of years to really show that we can develop something here that will be potentially safe and effective enough to go into humans. Worms have been secreting these proteins into humans for millennia, and there’s no signs that they are toxic.”
Excited to be working with their new investors, the first Australian venture for American pharma company AbbVie, Alex firmly believes their future is bright.
As a startup company, we now have a really good chance of actually reaching our goal and potentially bringing a whole new generation of drugs to the market
“I think a lot of people were surprised that a biotech company spun out of a North Queensland university, and even more so that the very first investor is one of the largest multi-national pharma companies. It’s helping to put North Queensland on the map in this space and we hope it’s the beginning of a vibrant biotech culture up here.”