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UMB licenses technology to Y Combinator-backed biotech startup

GEn1E Lifesciences is working to commercialize treatment for an inflammatory lung disease. Along with the way, it's collaborating with the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and local startup SilcsBio.

Dr. Ritu Lal is CEO of GEn1E Lifesciences. (Courtesy photo)

A biotech startup that’s backed by Silicon Valley’s well-known Y Combinator accelerator has ties to Baltimore: GEn1E Lifesciences is working to commercialize a treatment for inflammatory and age-related diseases that was developed at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and is partnering with a Baltimore-based startup that also grew out of UMB collaboration.

On Tuesday, UMB said it granted GEn1E Lifesciences the exclusive rights to therapeutics known as a p38a kinase inhibitor program. The Palo Alto, California-based company is initially developing the compounds to treat for acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), which is a severe lung condition that occurs when too much fluid fills the lungs. ARDS kills 40% of the people that contract it, and there is currently no treatment that has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Going forward, the company believes the treatment could be applied to other types of diseases.

GEn1E Lifesciences was founded by Dr. Ritu Lal, who earned a Ph.D. at the Baltimore-based University of Maryland School of Pharmacy before going on to work in the biotech industry. Lal had previously worked on p38a kinase inhibitors, but they were not developed in a way that could meet safety and efficacy standards.

But more than 20 years after studying at the institution, Lal found that UMB researchers had developed a new approach. Led by Dr. Paul Shapiro of the UM School of Pharmacy and Dr. Jeffrey D. Hasday of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, researchers were able to find a way to target only the part of an enzyme that was experiencing inflammation. This was important since previous approaches targeted an entire enzyme, which also contained parts that could help to treat the disease.

“They only attack the inflammatory part of the substrate, which is the innovation that did not exist so many years ago,” Lal said.

UMB’s tech transfer arm, known as UM Ventures, had previously identified this technology as having the potential for commercialization, and secured funding to help commercialize it through the Center for Maryland Advanced Ventures Life Sciences I.P. Fund.

“It was identified as a technology that was fairly advanced for most of the small molecules that we see. We thought it was particularly interesting and promising,” said UM Ventures Director Phil Robilotto.

Lal said the company began working with UM Ventures 18 months ago, collecting data. As it continued to work toward the licensing agreement, the company completed Y Combinator’s accelerator program in August. The program is a pioneer among accelerators, and has backed well-known tech companies. Now the company has a team of a dozen people, and is participating in another accelerator at Stanford University.

But Lal said a bond with Baltimore remains. The collaboration is also extending in the form of a partnership with SilcsBio, another tech company that was founded out of UMB. Computational chemistry technology developed by Dr. Alexander D. MacKerell, who directs UMB’s Computer-Aided Drug Design Center, played a role in developing the the p38a kinase inhibitor program. That technology is now licensed by Baltimore-based SilcsBio, which will continue to work with GEn1E Lifesciences to identify additional compounds that will help the company develop treatments for additional diseases, Lal said.

“The same tools will be used for the next generation of compounds,” she said.

Companies: SilcsBio / University of Maryland, Baltimore / Y Combinator

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