KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Area life sciences officials are pointing to a spinout company from the University of Kansas Medical Center as a big step forward in establishing the region as a hub of medical innovation.
The diabetes-focused company Likarda is working out of lab space at the Bioscience & Technology Business Center (BTBC) on the KU Med campus, and was incorporated in May.
“Likarda is unique because they have really sought out that intersection between human and animal health, said Wayne Carter, chief executive of the Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute. “It’s a very smart approach, and actually an approach that many other companies could learn from.”
The life sciences institute, which KU Med helped establish, is a nonprofit that aims to foster research, development and commercialization efforts in the region.
Part of that effort, which applies to Likarda, is the push to market the region as a place where pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies can farm out development work to more than 90 contract research organizations.
KU is also involved in the regional effort through the Institute for Advancing Medical Innovation, established four years ago at the medical center with an $8.1 million matching grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.
The intent is to accelerate development of research that has promising commercial prospects, and Director Scott Weir said Likarda stands out as the first company to result from an institute-funded project. Five investments, from a total of roughly $5.6 million awarded, have produced royalty-bearing technologies licensed to industry.
Likarda’s principals are Lisa Stehno-Bittel, chairman of KU Med’s Department of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science, and Karthik Ramachandran, a tissue engineer who worked under Stehno-Bittel while earning his doctorate in bioengineering.
“It is so important, I think, for all of us that Lisa is successful,” Weir said, “because she is really charting the path for others to hopefully follow.”
According to the Likarda executives, they have perfected a transplantation technique that can allow the body to naturally produce insulin. Their focus is dogs and cats, and the technique can eliminate the need for the injections.
The Likarda scientists re-engineer insulin-producing cell clusters, known as islets, which they extract from the pancreases of cadavers. The process improves the islets by shrinking them and making them better
candidates for successful transplants.
With a nod to their Kansas roots, Likarda calls its refashioned cell clusters “Kanslets,” which are a little larger than the width of a human hair.
Under a procedure that Likarda is developing, veterinarians would implant the Kanslets into diabetic dogs and cats. One possible option is an injection or infusion around the shoulder into bone marrow cavities.
Likarda’s expertise in developing cell clusters has landed it some initial business testing human-focused diabetes compounds for a large pharmaceutical company. Stehno-Bittel said they are, in effect, creating tiny organs that are good at mimicking how cells in the body would respond to a new drug candidate.
“So the hope,” she said, “is we can pick earlier in the drug discovery phase, which might be the most promising drug, and not waste a lot of time…on drugs that end up not having any effect once they get to the human.”
One of the intangibles in a successful faculty startup, Weir said, is having academics that can think like entrepreneurs.
Stehno-Bittel said that — with the assistance of BTBC vice president Frank Kruse — she and Ramachandran decided to exploit the niche in dogs and cats with diabetes. The field of researchers looking to develop better islet transplantation in humans is crowded, she said.
Based on market research, the Likarda executives conservatively estimate there are about 400,000 dogs and cats in the United States with diabetes. And, Kruse said, there are as many as 60,000 veterinarians in the country.
If all goes well, Stehno-Bittel said, the company could be ready to distribute its product within the next 12 to 18 months.
Stehno-Bittel said she and her partner are confident enough in the company’s potential to have invested their own money in the venture. Officials with the business incubator share that optimism.
“We are here to generate high-growth companies that generate high-growth jobs that are scalable,” Kruse said. “That is what Likarda is. They want to live and grow in this community, and that’s why they are here.”