A BioMed start-up heads to Wall Street.
On Feb. 16, entrepreneur Chirinjeev Kathuria ’88 MD’92 rang the Nasdaq bell to mark the initial public offering of Ocean Biomedical, a company he cofounded in 2019 with two Brown professors.
The bell ceremony was the culmination of translational research efforts championed by the former dean of medicine and biological sciences, Jack A. Elias, MD, since he came to Brown in 2013. He revived the University’s MD-PhD program and secured financial support for basic research and clinical faculty collaborations. The creation of the Brown Institute for Translational Science and the Brown Biomedical Innovations to Impact program curated faculty and funding.
Ocean Biomedical, which Elias cofounded with Kathuria and Jonathan Kurtis ’89 PhD’95 MD’96, exemplifies these translational research efforts. It’s one of the first start-ups from Brown to go public.
“Knowledge is great,” says Kurtis, the Stanley M. Aronson Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and chair of the department, who is developing malaria vaccine candidates. But, he adds, “if I know how to cure or prevent malaria, does that help anybody if it stops in my lab? It helps nobody. You have got to learn to embrace commercialization and distribution” to get therapies to patients.
In Africa, Kurtis has worked with children in regions where malaria is endemic to determine vaccine targets. He aims to develop a vaccine with a layered defense mechanism: preventing malaria from entering human red blood cells and, when the parasite sneaks by, destroying the cells’ invading inhabitants.
Ocean Biomedical researchers also are focusing on non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and fibrosis. For NSCLC, Elias—the Warren Alpert Foundation Professor of Translational Science—is studying the ability of a monoclonal antibody against the molecule CHI3L1 and a bispecific antibody that snags CHI3L1 and the protein PD1 to stop the activity of these molecules in cancer growth. This type of therapy may also help treat glioblastoma, Elias says.
Elias is also working to deploy a repurposed drug against chitinase 1, which contributes to diseases like idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and Hermansky-Pudlak syndrome that damage lung tissue but have few treatments.
The CHI3L1 antibody and the malaria vaccine both received patents this year. Ocean Biomedical has since been working toward FDA approval for investigational new drug applications for each candidate therapy and then testing the products in clinical trials, though another 12 to 18 months may pass until these formal steps are underway.
“As we expand our business model, we hope we can make a significant impact on research and cures,” says Kathuria, who has cofounded several publicly traded companies.
While many biomedical ventures sink into what is called the “valley of death” before their ideas make it to market, Ocean Biomedical could help other research groups that join the company to stay afloat. Its core company consolidates logistics, but each research group within can focus on a different disease and therapy, eventually budding off as its own company. This structure facilitates collaboration and minimizes administrative work while fostering start-ups, Kurtis says. The main investigators also retain a relatively large share of their companies, adds Kathuria, Ocean Biomedical’s executive chairman.
Mukesh K. Jain, MD, who succeeded Elias as dean in 2022, has continued to pave the way for such translational research at the University. A new life sciences building is expected to open in coming years, and the new Brown Innovation and Research Collaborative for Health brings together life sciences research at Brown, Lifespan, and Care New England.
If teams like Ocean Biomedical continue to make waves in Rhode Island, they will help grow the state’s workforce, and provide greater access to cutting-edge medical care, Jain says.
“Integrated, collaborative research that spans the continuum of research, from pipette to patient to populations, helps advance a shared vision that will catalyze innovation and biomedical sciences,” he says.