A Scottsdale-based biotechnology company is developing a drug that could help people survive chemical attacks, radiation exposure and modernday viruses such as severe acute respiratory syndrome and avian flu, company leaders say.
ImmuneRegen is in various phases of study for its Homspera compound which helps insulate and protect cells from damage due to viral infections, such as SARS, and exposure to various agents, such as ricin and anthrax.
"It’s actually an antiinflammatory that allows existing cell receptors and cell membranes to protect major organs as well as the cells themselves," said Michael Wilhelm, ImmuneRegen’s CEO.
The company is conducting research on the compound for use against acute radiation syndrome and acute respiratory distress syndrome.
ARDS affects the ability of the lungs to function properly and happens in humans who are stricken with SARS, avian flu or have been exposed to chemical agents.
"We have proven 100 percent efficacy in treating and reversing ARDS. . . . ARDS replicates what occurs when you’re exposed to ricin or anthrax. It attacks the upper respiratory airways and system," Wilhelm said.
The compound was developed by Mark Witten, a scientist at the University of Arizona’s College of Medicine, who founded the company in 2002.
To be marketed under the name of Radilex, the substance is in the final stages of research in the treatment of radiation exposure.
Research being conducted under Witten’s tutelage has shown a 50 percent survival rate in animal subjects that suffered from radiation sickness after being exposed to fatal doses of radiation. All the subjects exposed to the same doses of radiation but not given Homspera died.
Since there will be no tests conducted on humans — ethics prevent tests that expose humans to lethal doses of radiation — the next phase is to receive special approval from the Federal Drug Administration. If all goes well, the product could be available for radiation treatment as soon as next year, Wilhelm said.
But FDA approvals for other uses of Homspera in humans, such as respiratory distress syndrome, are most likely about three years away, Wilhelm said.
But because of its potential to save lives within the context of biological terrorism, security officials have expressed interest in Homspera and its development could be fast-tracked with government backing, Wilhelm said.
Company leaders have discussed the drug with officials from the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security and other governmental bodies, Wilhelm said.
"We didn’t set out to be a bioterrorism company . . . but we hope to have something available like that since we are under a continued threat (of terrorism)," Wilhelm said.
In addition, the National Institute of Health, the World Health Organization and the Singapore government have expressed interest in ImmuneRegen’s research and Homspera’s potential, Wilhelm said.
The company has just opened a satellite office in Singapore and will conduct more extensive research on the drug’s usefulness in combatting the effects of SARS and avian flu, Wilhelm said.
"The end result of SARS is severe influenza, pneumonia. You drown from within. Our compound protects the upper respiratory system airways and boosts the immune system to protect against infection," Wilhelm said.
While conducting radiation exposure research, Homspera was also found to help animal subjects retain and grow hair.
Although that’s a secondary avenue of research, Homspera could be used in conjunction with other drugs to help chemotherapy patients keep their hair. Cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy lose some or all of their hair, and many say it is one of the most traumatic experiences in their battle against cancer.
Wilhelm warned that many companies are working feverishly to develop drugs that may be used to battle bioterrorism. But within this competitive environment, Wilhelm is upbeat that the company can achieve its goals and recently received funding through a New York investment bank.