Three UAMS Research Teams Named Inaugural Recipients of BioVentures Accelerator Awards

By David Robinson

The accelerator program, which aims to help jump-start the translation of promising scientific discoveries into therapies, is providing the selected projects with substantial benefits, including financial grants up to $50,000 for projects to be completed in six months, project management, budget allocation and progress tracking.

“I am excited to see the AR Health Ventures Accelerator program become a reality,” said John Imig, Ph.D., BioVentures vice president of Technology Acceleration and leader of the ARHVA program. “This program will address significant gaps in advancing investigator ideas and research towards therapeutic products, ultimately enhancing patient care.”

Imig is also the chair of the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences in the UAMS College of Pharmacy.

The three 2024 award recipients are:

Gyan Sahukhal, Ph.D., project leader; assistant staff scientist, College of Medicine Department of Microbiology and Immunology

Project title: “The Battle Against Biofilms: A Novel Approach to Staphylococcus aureus Infections”

This project targets the challenging biofilm formation in Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) infections, aiming to reduce complications by inhibiting biofilm regulators.

Biofilm formation in S. aureus infections is extremely challenging to treat and can cause many complications in patients. The therapeutic approach that was chosen for AHRVA will target regulators of biofilm formation, which will help to stop S. aureus biofilms and reduce complications from infections.

The project co-investigators are: Mohamed O. Elasri, Ph.D.; Mark S. Smeltzer, Ph.D.; Meenakshisundaram Balasubramaniam, Ph.D.; Brendan Frett, Ph.D.; and Nirjal Mainali.

Samir Jenkins, Ph.D., project leader; instructor, College of Medicine Department of Radiation Oncology

Project title: “Revolutionizing Cancer Therapy with Radiation-Responsive Liposomes”

Jenkins is exploring a novel cancer treatment strategy using liposomes that release drugs in response to radiation. This approach seeks to enhance the precision of tumor targeting while minimizing the side effects associated with chemotherapy. By developing controllable, radiation-responsive liposomes, Jenkins’ research has the potential to improve the efficacy and safety of cancer therapeutics, which would mark a significant advancement in the field.

Mitchell McGill, Ph.D., project leader; associate professor, Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health Department of Environmental Health Sciences

Project title: “Advancing Liver Injury Detection with New Biomarkers”

Suspected liver injury is one of the top five most common reasons for termination of new drugs during clinical trials. McGill said many drugs that are terminated due to potential liver injury may actually be safe, costing pharmaceutical companies and potentially depriving patients of effective treatments. Currently, liver injury detection is based on monitoring of the enzyme alanine aminotransferase (ALT) in blood. Typically, ALT is released from dying cells and therefore reflects tissue injury. However, it is well-established that ALT elevations can occur in the absence of liver damage too, he said.

“In other words, ALT can yield false positives. Thus, new biomarkers with greater specificity for liver damage are needed,” McGill said. “We have identified a promising new biomarker to meet this need. This ARHVA funded project aims to develop a convenient and commercially viable immunoassay to measure it.”

The unique support framework offered by ARHVA allows researchers to focus on their innovations while ARHVA ensures projects stay on track and meet crucial milestones toward commercialization. This approach significantly removes some of the risks from therapeutic development, increasing the commercial value of projects and paving the way for successful licensing, partnerships, or the launch of startups, according to BioVentures.

Eric Peterson, Ph.D., Bioventures interim president, said, “I am thrilled to be a part of the launch of the AR Health Ventures Accelerator program, marking a pivotal step forward in our mission to help translate pioneering scientific research such as these three exciting projects into tangible health care solutions.”