Natural neighbors
April 2013
by Kelsey Kaustinen  |  Email the author


DUBLIN, Ohio—The Ohio State University (OSU) and Biosortia Pharmaceuticals have found that a great industry partner can be just down the street. The two Dublin, Ohio-based organizations have established an agreement to discover new biologically active natural products that demonstrate potential anti-cancer activity.  
Biosortia will be sponsoring the research project, and compounds that result from the agreement will be tested primarily against human colon cancer assays, though it may eventually expand to include other cancer subtypes. Ultimately, the partners hope to identify lead compounds that can be licensed through Biosortia's industry relationships to pharmaceutical companies for further development. The initial agreement was finalized by a collaboration between OSU's Technology Commercialization and Knowledge Transfer Office and Office of Sponsored Programs.  
The partnership stems primarily from a preexisting work relationship between Dr. Guy Carter, chief scientific officer at Biosortia, and Dr. Douglas Kinghorn, Jack L. Beal professor and chair of Medicinal Chemistry and Pharmacognosy at OSU. Kinghorn will serve as principal investigator and direct the researchers from OSU in this project. His research includes the isolation, characterization and biological evaluation of natural products, and he has worked on natural product compounds with potential anti-microbial, cancer chemotherapeutic, cancer chemopreventive, sweet-tasting and bitterness-blocking effects.
"Dr. Kinghorn is a world-leader in research of natural products for drug discovery. The cooperation between the organizations creates a productive first step in building a long-term relationship," says Carter, who will be working closely with Kinghorn.
The agreement will be very collaborative, Carter notes. Biosortia will provide "preprocessed materials from harvested microbial consortia," while Kinghorn and his team will handle the testing--examining organic molecules from the provided cyanobacterial samples--and follow-up in terms of isolation of compounds. Kinghorn will also be working with Dr. Hee-byung Chai, who brings years of experience with cell-based biological screening of natural products.  
"The search for new lead compounds from natural sources should pay big dividends," said Kinghorn in a press release.
Kinghorn has worked on natural products as the basis for lead compounds to treat cancer for more than 30 years, he says, and using natural products as anticancer agents "may provide a means of treating forms of cancer for which there are no available cancer chemotherapeutic options."
Natural products have had a presence in cancer chemotherapy for more than 50 years, and lately they have been boasting an increasingly large role in cancer therapeutics.
According to a 2012 Journal of Natural Products paper, "Natural products as sources of new drugs over the 30 years from 1981 to 2010," compounds that are derived from terrestrial microbes and plants are now standard agents in chemotherapy, with more than 50 percent of cancer drugs based on natural products.
"Over the last five or six years, there has been a resurgence in the number of natural product-derived anticancer drugs approved by the U.S. FDA, and these have been from terrestrial microbes primarily, but also from plants and even from marine organisms," says Kinghorn. "I think that there will continue to be a steady stream of new additions to oncology therapy of agents of natural origin over the next few years." 
The trend is one that Carter expects to continue as well, despite what he notes as a "break in the chain" by pharma in the past decade or so as the industry turned to synthetic chemistry.  
"It's quite clear that in cancer, and in cancer and infectious diseases in particular, that nature is still providing the most useful lead compounds to get to effective therapies. And we think that tapping into microbial consortia with our unique capability of harvesting whole consortia and all the constituent microorganisms that are present actually gives us access to a really broad range of these kind of potential antibiotics and anti-cancer agents that people haven't been able to test for," he says. "It's the historical relevance of natural products in cancer chemotherapy and infectious diseases, and then our ability to dig deeper into the natural environment of these consortia, that makes us so positive about this source. "
Kurt Dieck, president and CEO of Biosortia, says this agreement with Ohio State is one of many natural product-focused partnerships for the company, with others in fields such as infectious diseases, neuroscience and anti-inflammatory.  
"There's a lot of published information … that has shown how ineffective the chemistry-based type of research that has been going on over the last 10 or 15 years is. The effectiveness of that, as far as ultimately producing a new drug, has dropped almost 50 percent, so pharma is looking for organizations like ours to be collaborators with them to actually support some of these types of natural product opportunities," says Dieck.
Additionally, a recent McKinsey study noted that economic return on research and development spending has dropped from 13 to 15 percent in the 1990s to 4 to 9 percent in the past decade.
"I think that even though pharma has moved away in a certain sense from using natural products, upon reflection it seems fairly clear that they'd all like to have access to more natural products-based materials, particularly in the area of cancer and infectious diseases," Carter concludes.

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