By Jim Stafford
Copyright © 2014, The Oklahoma Publishing Company
Just a few years ago, we lived in a world that wasn’t connected by wireless networks and instantaneous communication. So you might have felt a bit isolated if you were raised in, say, Australia.
That was definitely the perception of Anne Pereira in the early 1980s as she served a postdoctoral fellowship at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, Australia. She had earned both her undergraduate and Ph.D. degrees in pathology at the University of Melbourne.
“I felt I was so far away from everything that was happening in science!” Pereira said. “I decided I needed to go either to Europe or America to be where I thought science was happening. Of course, this was all pre-Internet.”
So, she accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory University in Atlanta, working in the laboratory of John Spitznagel, who chaired Emory’s Department of Microbiology from 1979 to 1993.
It was in Spitznagel’s laboratory that Pereira, now dean of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center Graduate College, discovered the secret of a protein called CAP37.
Pereira and colleagues discovered that a peptide or small region of the CAP37 protein had the ability to kill bacteria. (Peptides are short amino acid chains that play a key role in many biological functions.) A patent was filed in 1989 for the discovery with Pereira listed as one of the inventors.
Pereira was subsequently named an assistant professor in the Department of Pathology at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. She has served OU since 1992, rising to professor and associate dean of Research in the College of Pharmacy before being named dean of the Graduate College in August.
Along the way, Pereira’s research into the role of peptides at her OU lab has resulted in 18 patents awarded in her name. Numerous others are in the works.
In 2005, she founded a company called Biolytx Pharmaceuticals Corp. to take her peptide discoveries to the marketplace.
For almost a decade, Pereira and her Biolytx team have worked to prepare a therapeutic based on the CAP37 peptide that will kill drug-resistant bacteria. Biolytx is specifically targeting serious hospital-acquired infections.
“In combination with standard antibiotics, we may be able to extend the life of conventional antibiotics and also use them at much lower concentrations, which could result in less toxicity,” she said.
Like most life science startups, the company has operated for almost a decade generating no revenue. However, awards and grants from i2E Inc.; the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology (OCAST); the National Institutes of Health and the state’s Economic Development Generating Excellence fund have sustained it.
Pereira and her Biolytx team have worked to synthesize the peptide in quantities large enough for use in clinical trials. Animal studies have demonstrated its effectiveness.
The company also contracted with Oklahoma City-based ARL Laboratories to develop assays for the peptide (a laboratory examination to help learn more about its physiology) and also to assess its stability in storage.
“We’ve really achieved some major milestones,” Pereira said. “We are actually getting very close to an investigational new drug filing. I estimate it may happen in 12 to 18 months.”
Despite greater support for biotechnology on both the east and west coasts, Pereira is determined to build Biolytx as an Oklahoma success story.
“Oklahoma has invested in me; the university has invested in me; and OCAST has invested in me,” she said. “I feel they have supported me to such a level that our successes in the laboratory and as a company are Oklahoma-generated and a tribute to what has been and continues to be accomplished in biotechnology here.”
Jim Stafford writes about the state’s life sciences industry on behalf of the Oklahoma Bioscience Association.