Louisiana biotech firms are on the brink of a pharmaceutical revolution

Cost-effective innovations could soon limit the need to use animals in the development of pharmaceuticals, and two Louisiana life sciences start-up companies are pioneering that possibility.

New Orleans-based AxoSim and Obatala Sciences use “organ-on-a-chip” technology that mimics what happens inside people at the cellular level. If widely adopted, their model could radically alter pharmaceutical development while sharply reducing the time and price to bring those drugs to market.

The two emerged from the New Orleans Bioinnovation Center – AxoSim in 2014 and Obatala in 2017 – and are now on the leading edge of a pharmaceutical research trend that many believe will eventually erode the reliance on time-consuming, costly and sometimes controversial animal testing.

Organ-on-a-chip provides human results, something animal testing cannot predict. Only 12 percent of all drugs that pass animal testing ultimately win FDA approval, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Just 6 percent of medications for neurological conditions do.

On average, 10 to 15 years and $1.5 billion are required for a new drug to reach the commercial stage. Before the drug is tested on people, researchers first investigate the medication’s safety and effectiveness in animals.

This may require scientists to genetically modify mice to replicate the condition being researched, such as obesity, cancer or other diseases. The genetic modifications may take six months, the trial itself another year.

Obatala CEO Dr. Trivia Frazier said her team can establish a tissue model in about three weeks. “In terms of cost savings, it’s substantial,” she said.

AxoSim CEO Lowry Curley puts it another way: “We deliver human data, faster.”

AxoSim’s NerveSim platform is the first in vitro model that can measure the effects of medication on the human nervous system. Obatala’s Oba Cell platform is the first commercially available system for engineering 3D adipose tissue – meaning tissue that stores fat.

These technologies offer researchers an opportunity to tackle troubling, and potentially lucrative, health issues: the mounting neurodegenerative issues of an aging population and the epidemic of obesity and type 2 diabetes.

“We’re well-positioned. The fundamentals are in place,” Obatala CEO Trivia Frazier said. “As far as growth goes, we had moved into revenue beyond $1 million in 2019, before the pandemic. … We are looking at doubling and tripling that in 2023 and 2024, and multiples of those figures beyond that.”

AxoSim CEO Lowry Curley said the company is fully booked and has landed several new clients, which has reaffirmed his belief in the need for AxoSim’s neurodiscovery drug development platforms.

The speed of discovery and potential financial windfall aren’t the only benefit organ-on-chip systems offer.

Recruiting a diverse group of participants is one of the major challenges in clinical trials. Obatala can assemble those cohorts in the lab, tailoring age range, ethnicity and gender by combining its pipeline of stem cells, human-derived hydrogels and media products to mimic tissue from patients from specific populations.

Obatala is the first life sciences firm in New Orleans headed by a Black woman, and the first minority female-owned biotech firm in the state to raise more than $1 million in institutional funds. Promoting diversity in clinical research is a key part of Obatala’s mission, and in September 2022 it announced $3 million in investment from its latest round of financing.

Diseases like obesity, diabetes and cancer disproportionately affect minorities. Frazier believes the company’s technology can speed the development of treatments for the people who need them the most, and who have traditionally been excluded from clinical trials.

AxoSim holds the exclusive license from Johns Hopkins University for BrainSim, which allows testing of medications that treat neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s, while Obatala holds an exclusive license from Harvard University to commercialize fat-on-a-chip models that allow for the testing of weight-loss and cancer-targeting medications.

Learn more about AxoSim and Obatala Sciences by visiting their websites:

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