K-State biochemistry professor embarks upon cystic fibrosis research through technology transfer, commercialization of intellectual property

December 29, 2000

MANHATTAN -- As a youth, John Tomich always envisioned himself as an inventor.

"My mother always told me to invent something simple that everyone could use, say a safety pin or a zipper, " Tomich said.

True to his mother's word, Tomich invented something simple -- a hole.

"We can insert a hole or 'portal' into cells that are selective for chloride ions, the negative ion in ordinary table salt," Tomich said. "Maintaining the proper concentrations of ions in cells is very important and in some disease conditions, the concentration and location of ions are incorrect. "

By strategically placing these synthetic portals, or as Tomich and his colleagues call them, synporins, the correct balance between the different ions can be restored. Tomich has two patents in hand and two pending based on this technology.

As much as Tomich envisioned himself as an inventor, he never saw himself as an entrepreneurial-type.

But Tomich's initial entrepreneurial endeavor, Nacelle Therapeutics, Inc., based on intellectual property and the specialized know-how developed by the Kansas State University biochemistry professor and his colleagues in the treatment of cystic fibrosis, is not much of a stretch. Nacelle, founded late last year, uses proprietary synthetic peptides to replace defective ion channels characteristic of such genetically based diseases as cystic fibrosis.

"If you think of it in some ways, every laboratory at this university in some sense is a little company," Tomich said. "When the university hires science professors, they are expected to conduct independent and original research. The successful researchers go out and raise their own money through grants; produce a product which is their research, and then market this work through publishing and giving talks. In some ways that's the job we do every day."

Tomich describes the neophyte company as being in the "virtual" stage, nurtured by Gary Rabold and Ron Sampson at the Kansas Entrepreneurial Center. The non-profit corporation serves as a technology incubator, providing facilities and administrative support for new start-up companies.

"As a scientist we really don't often deal a lot with common business matters such as preparing budgets, making sure the money flows at a certain rate, making sure that we raise capital when we need to and the kinds of things that business people do well," Tomich said. "They essentially do the things that we don't do well, thus allowing us to do the things that we can do well."

Nacelle has an aggressive plan with a goal to enter phase one human clinical trials within three years. The company recently applied for Small Business Innovation Research program funding from the National Institutes of Health and it is having exploratory discussions with a range of other potential funding sources.

"It's a nice situation in that it allows me as a professor to participate in the founding of a company without necessarily having to give up all of my duties as a professor," Tomich said. "I still get to teach, maintain my lab here, I still have graduate students and at the same time develop this other entity which, depending on how much money and interest we're able to raise, we could grow to having any number of employees that would help to facilitate this."

Tomich said the establishment of Nacelle opens up avenues of funding previously not available to individual university researchers. As a single researcher he would be lucky to receive two grants from the NIH, however through Nacelle, the possibilities are unlimited.

"It would be very difficult for me to raise more than $500,000 a year in total costs for my own research as an individual," Tomich said. "But as a company it is potentially unlimited so the dollar amounts we raise can be 10 times the numbers we're seeing here."

While Nacelle's main function is to develop a therapeutic treatment for cystic fibrosis, Tomich envisions other applications for the channel replacement therapy, such as the treatment of stroke and epilepsy sufferers. For now, however, cystic fibrosis remains the focus of his research.

"We think the channel replacement therapy has application in many other diseases, but cystic fibrosis is our lead issue at this time," Tomich said. "As that becomes more mature, we'll start looking at other areas as well."
Prepared by Keener A. Tippin II.

Kansas State University

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