By Scott Meacham
Copyright © 2019, The Oklahoman
When a looming medical problem exists, people usually hear about it — so much so that even lay people become familiar with the scientific names — angina, arrhythmia, blastoma, lymphoma, hepatitis and the like.
Cirrhosis, the condition of scarring and permanent damage to the liver, often from alcohol, is another liver condition often in the public eye. Less commonly known beyond the medical profession, however, are the underlying causes of cirrhosis that are not related to hepatitis or alcohol.
Two of those conditions are nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH)—conditions, which are related to too much fat being stored in the liver occurring in people who do not drink.
In the U.S., NAFLD affects an estimated 80 million people. NASH, an especially aggressive form of NAFLD which results in inflammation, liver damage, liver scarring, cirrhosis, and liver cancer caused by fat building up in the liver, is projected to be the leading cause of liver transplant by 2020.
There are no silver bullets in tackling the problem of liver disease. It is very complicated and often involves a multi-pronged approach, tackling diabetes, cardiovascular issues, and more simultaneously. There are drug therapies for these, but there is no drug therapy for fatty liver disease.
Kirrhos Pharmaceuticals, an Oklahoma-based biotechnology firm is developing an oral drug to treat and reverse the effects of fatty liver disease. With a streamlined development plan, the company expects to put the drug in clinical trials in less than 15 months.
“The beginning stages of fatty liver disease are reversible,” said Dr. Elaine Hamm, Kirrhos Pharmaceuticals Founder and COO. “If you catch it early, you can stop it. But one of the most frightening aspects of NAFLD is that it is silent. A person can have NAFLD without knowing it, until it progresses to an advanced stage. By then, irreversible liver damage is done.”
Creating awareness, is top of mind for Dr. Hamm and Kirrhos Pharmaceuticals.
“Fatty liver disease is a big medical problem and is emerging as one of the most common chronic liver diseases.” she said. “Unfortunately, though millions of Americans are at risk for developing this disease, they may not even know it. Patients need to know about NAFLD and NASH and have meaningful conversations with their physicians early about the dangers of this disease, their own risk factors, and about the impact of diet and exercise on preventing liver damage.’
Beyond creating therapies that reverse disease, it is critically important that early stage biotech startups are “canaries in the coal mine.”
As these young companies dig into unsolved problems to improve and save lives, they also play a unique and vital role in education and awareness—especially when it comes to conditions like fatty liver disease which can affect so many in such life-threatening ways. (For more information, visit the Ascend BioVentures website)
Scott Meacham is president and CEO of i2E Inc., a nonprofit corporation that mentors many of the state’s technology-based startup companies. i2E receives state appropriations from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology. Contact Meacham at i2E_Comments@i2E.org