New company is developing advanced therapeutics for stroke victims

Arizona Engineered Therapeutics Inc., a new company based on the research of three Arizona State University professors, is moving its first drug candidate closer to clinical trials.

The drug could potentially save the lives of people who suffer a stroke by providing a key protein that is missing in the body after such an incident. Because the drug works on relaxing smooth muscle cells in blood vessels, AzERx researchers think there may be several additional uses for their compound.

The primary compound of AzERx is based on the research of Colleen Brophy, director of the Center for Protein and Peptide Therapeutics at ASU's Arizona Biodesign Institute; and Lokesh Joshi, an associate professor and Alyssa Panitch, an assistant professor, both in the Harrington Department of Bioengineering of the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering.

AzERx Inc., was created with the assistance of the Arizona Technology Enterprises, ASU's technology venturing company.

AzERx's lead compound, called HSP20, is a small protein that relaxes the smooth muscle tissue surrounding an arterial wall to aid blood flow. This effect, the researchers found, can be beneficial to people who have suffered a specific type of stroke induced by a subarachnoid hemorrhage in the brain.

Elizabeth Furnish, director of research at AzERx, said subarachnoid hemorrhage is a particularly devastating condition that leaves up to half the people it affects (30,000 in the U.S. each year) either dead or severely debilitated.

“These are people in their 50s who are otherwise healthy,” Furnish said.

After the subarachnoid hemorrhage occurs, it causes blood to enter the brain triggering vasospasms of the cerebral arteries. The spasms increase the pressure in the brain and likelihood of a major stroke to the person. HSP20 relaxes those smooth muscle cells.

“When the blood vessel starts to constrict, you add this compound and it keeps the muscle relaxed and the blood vessel open,” Furnish said.

Tests on rats showed that a single dosage given 24 hours after a hemorrhage begins completely eliminates the vasospasm. HSP20 has already cleared several development hurdles and the researchers are getting ready for pre-clinical development and toxicity testing.

Furnish said if all goes well, they hope to begin clinical trials by the middle of 2005. She adds that because it treats a particularly devastating indication, the company is hoping it can run a combined phase 1 and 2 clinical trial and speed its path through the regulatory process.

“Because HSP20 relaxes smooth muscle, there are several applications we could target depending on our success rate with subarachnoid hemorrhage,” Furnish said.

Those uses include procedures to relax blood vessels during or after the clearing of clogged arteries, procedures involving vein grafts, as a possible treatment for asthma and sexual dysfunction, Furnish said. http://www.asu.edu

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