Spokane Journal of Business

WSU scientists sign pact with Spokane company

Bio-Genetic Ventures plans to market new technologies for infertility, blood freezing

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Advanced Reproduction Technologies Inc., a Spokane biotech research company that has been trying for six years to commercialize its fertility-treatment technologies and spin-off discoveries, appears to have taken a significant step toward its goal.


The company, launched in 1994 by two scientists at Washington State University at Spokane, has signed a licensing pact for two of its technologies with Bio-Genetic Ventures Inc., a Spokane company that does biotech research and development and invests in biotech companies.


The pact is expected to lead to the commercialization of a vaginal lubricant that might give infertile couples a better chance of conceiving, and a proprietary polysaccharide, or plant sugar, that shows promise as being useful in the freezing of blood cells and the cold-storage transportation of human tissue and organs for transplantation.


Other technologies aimed at use by humans and under development by Advanced Reproduction could be licensed to Bio-Genetic Ventures later, says Advanced Reproductions CEO Joanna Ellington. Advanced Reproduction, which is owned by Ellington and fellow WSU researcher Sylvia Oliver, also has developed bovine-fertility technologies, and currently is licensing those technologies to a Pullman, Wash., company.


Ellington says that as a result of the new pact, Bio-Genetic Ventures has begun handling the day-to-day business operations of Advanced Reproduction. She says she and Oliver will continue to do research on the technologies they have licensed to Bio-Genetic Ventures, but mostly now as employees of that company, though they also will continue in their positions at WSU-Spokane. As research and clinical testing proceeds, as is expected in coming months, another three or four people might be hired by Bio-Genetic Ventures to help with that process, she says.


Ellington adds that whether the products will be produced in Spokane hasnt been decided, and will depend on what resources are available here when the production stage is reached.


Peter Allison, president of Bio-Genetic Ventures, says hes very optimistic about the Advanced Reproduction technologies and the potential markets for them, which he describes as huge. He adds that the research expertise of Ellington and Oliver is world class.


Were very excited, says Allison. Their technology is cutting edge.


The potential vaginal lubricant product would be targeted at the billion-dollar infertility market. Such lubricants often are used to battle discomfort when couples use ovulation timing in an attempt to conceive, but studies have found that the lubricants typically used today can be detrimental to sperm motility and function, and thus can hinder chances of conception.


Advanced Reproduction believes it has developed ingredients for an over-the-counter vaginal lubricant that would not be harmful to sperm, and might even boost a sperms chances of fertilizing an egg.


Ellington says it likely will take a minimum of 18 months to two years to bring to market a vaginal lubricant that could be claimed at least to do no harm to human sperm, while the clinical trials to prove to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that use of the product would show improved conception rates could take a number of years.


The market for the product, though, could be big, says Ellington, adding that an estimated 15 million ovulation-timing kits are sold annually worldwide to couples hoping to conceive.


Meanwhile, discovery of the possible use of a polysaccharide in the freezing of blood cells and human tissue came as an offshoot of Advanced Reproductions research into the substances use in protecting sperm cells from being damaged during the freezing process, which is done to store sperm prior to artificial insemination.


Typically, chemicals such as dimethylsulfoxide, or DMSO, are used to protect such cells, but DMSO is detrimental to the cells when they are thawed, and thus must be washed away before thawing. Use of Advanced Reproductions polysaccharide would eliminate altogether the need for DMSO, Oliver claims.


Advanced Reproduction, through Bio-Genetic Ventures, wants to test cell-freezing prototypes using the polysaccharide on a variety of blood-cell types, including stem cells, lymphocytes, and platelets, she says. In addition, it will test the polysaccharides ability to protect transplant tissue and organs from cellular damage.


Ellington says she cant speculate on how long it would take to commercialize that product.


The companys pact with Bio-Genetic Ventures isnt its first. In addition to the license it has with the Pullman company, Advanced Reproduction also had previously licensed some of its technologies to a Minnesota pharmaceutical company, which later relinquished the license to move on to other strategies, Ellington says. Advanced Reproduction also came close in 1997 to licensing its technologies to a California company, but never was able to cement the deal.


This is really what we needed, she says of the pact with Bio-Genetic Ventures. This brings the technology here, where Sylvia and I can spearhead it. Every time weve gone through one of these deals before, weve had to bring the other party up to speed, and deal with long-distance relationships with the licensee.


Im really excited about what the next couple of years will hold, Ellington says.


Ellington and Oliver, both of whom also are researchers at WSU-Spokanes Health Research and Education Center downtown, received help both from the HREC and the Spokane Intercollegiate Research and Technology Institute to launch their company. Some of Ellington and Olivers research was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health.

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