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Area Startup Working To Develop COVID-19 Technology

Author: Diana Ferro, PhD

When COVID hit, biotech CEO, Jim West did what any entrepreneur would do– looked at whether his company, Clara Biotech could pivot to help address the needs that the pandemic presented. Luckily, he and his team had been working on a novel diagnostics and therapeutic platform for the last several years. The platform uses exosomes, tiny structures that transport biological materials between cells. These mobile units and the cargo they transport offer exciting possibilities for healthcare; the DNA and proteins carried inside can be used to diagnose complex diseases while the exosome structures themselves can be drug delivery tools. 

One of Clara’s first questions was whether their technology could be leveraged to create a rapid diagnostic test for the disease. The team quickly discovered that since the virus was new, there really weren’t well-known markers to target using their existing exosome technology. Their other question was whether their technology could be used for developing a therapeutic. The team knew the potential was definitely there – there was already evidence that exosomes extracted from stem cells had anti-inflammatory and regenerative properties and there were promising studies showing improved outcomes in several animal models with similar pathologies to COVID-19. But to get a marketable therapeutic would require significant research investment. There are more than 700 COVID-19 therapeutics in development since January, making funding and research resources competitive. Many of the grants available focus on investing in therapies that can be used right away, primarily those already approved or in clinical trials.  Since Clara’s research was in an earlier phase, additional research and development was needed before being competitive for funding.

Clara decided that they could contribute best by bridging the research gap to move exosome diagnostics and therapeutics forward into the marketplace. While the company’s primary goal has been focused on developing exosome technology to diagnose and treat diseases like cancer and neurological conditions, last year they made the realization that the methodology they were using was immensely valuable to the research community. They have been leveraging their expertise to purify exosomes for customers and are launching an exosome isolation kit. “We want to get our exosome purification technology into the hands of customers so that they can actually start using it, playing with it, and developing with it,” said West. Dr. Tom Krol, Chief Development Officer at Clara also sees exosomes as a broad platform that could impact therapeutics research for COVID-19 and other lung infections. “People that get repeated pneumonia, such as kids with cystic fibrosis, develop this condition called bronchiectasis. This condition represents permanent lung damage. Exosomes could potentially be delivered to the patient to try and reverse that lung damage,” said Krol. Clara has launched a program to provide people access to exosome kits that could be used to pursue these and other avenues of research. 

One challenge standing in the way of furthering this work is finding money to support early stage biotechnology companies. The grant opportunities aren’t always a good fit and it’s difficult to find investors who are willing to take risks in long-term research endeavours. One opportunity Krol sees is with Kansas City’s robust philanthropic community; “If we can convert area philanthropists who generously donate their money to instead become investors of local entrepreneurs, we can make a really big difference in the world, like using exosome technology to help treat diseases and be more prepared for the next pandemic.”

About the Author: Diana Ferro is a communications volunteer with BioKansas and a PhD Research Scientist at Children’s Mercy. To address complex scientific questions, Dr. Ferro uses a novel, integrative approach that combines bioinformatics with biomolecular and biochemical biology. The active promotion of communication and collaboration between scientists to produce ground-breaking discoveries is an integral part of her work.

About Clara Biotech: At Clara Biotech, our mission is to enable therapeutic and diagnostic discovery and support clinical applications of exosomes by providing the tools researchers need to harness the full potential of exosomes. Our novel exosome isolation platform (ExoRelease) is the new standard in terms of a simple, reliable, standardized protocol that provides researchers the ability to isolate pure, subtyped, functional solutions of in-tact, viable exosomes from any biofluid. Clara’s ExoRelease platform simplifies the complexity previously associated with exosome sample preparation, giving researchers the confidence they need to draw valid conclusions and industrial suppliers the system and scalability they need to develop clinical solutions that will redefine how we diagnose and treat disease.