Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Genetic diagnostics startup wins $ 4.5 million venture investment

Two UNM researchers, Nikolaus Mellios (left) and Alex Hafez, have developed an RNA-based tool to diagnose depression and improve treatment. (Roberto E. Rosales / )

Copyright © 2021

Albuquerque startup Circular Genomics received a $ 4.5 million venture to advance breakthrough technology for diagnosing depression and other neurological disorders.

Developed at the University of New Mexico, the technology is the first to use RNA as a powerful biomarker to unravel a person’s genomic basis for both depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. This could allow doctors to immediately determine the best treatment for patients, potentially eliminating today’s trial-and-error approach of doctors prescribing antidepressants without knowing whether the drugs being offered will improve a particular patient’s condition.

It is a “personalized medicine” for brain diseases that could help patients faster and more effectively, said Nikolaos Mellios, an assistant professor in the UNM’s Department of Neuroscience who helped develop the technology.

“It can predict a patient’s sensitivity to antidepressant drugs to advise psychiatrists prior to treatment,” Mellios told the Journal. “Today you go to a psychiatrist who prescribes an antidepressant for you without knowing if you are feeling better.”

Only 40% of patients, on average, respond to the first antidepressant prescribed and then it takes months to work, Mellios said. That is, 60% won’t get better, and after four to six months of waiting, the doctor may prescribe a different medication or just increase the dose of the medication the patient is already taking.

“Our diagnostics can help doctors make better decisions about the first drug prescribed,” said Mellios. “If we can increase the initial success from 40% to 60%, for example, we are talking about millions more people who get something effective at the first visit to the doctor. That’s huge. “

Investor interest

That broad potential impact immediately attracted investors when Mellios and the company’s co-founder Alexander Hafez launched Circular Genomics last winter.

Hafez worked with Mellios to fully develop diagnostic technology as a graduate student in biomedical sciences. He graduated in January, started the company with Mellios in February, and then competed in Circular Genomics at the Comcast Pitch Deck Competition in April.

This is an annual event sponsored by Comcast and hosted by UNM Rainforest Innovations, which manages the university’s technology transfer programs.

The company won first place for $ 10,000 at the event where startups stand right in front of investors to foster networking between potential funders and emerging entrepreneurs who develop compelling products and services, said Lisa Kuuttila, CEO of Rainforest Innovations.

“It’s exciting because we don’t have a lot of technology today to address the problem of mental illness,” Kuuttila told the Journal. “Having a tool to diagnose malfunctions more effectively is extremely helpful. It immediately aroused the interest of investors in the pitch competition. “

In fact, two of the key investors in the newly approved $ 4.5 million round of ventures – Waneta Tuttle of Tramway Venture Partners of Albuquerque and David Blivin of Cottonwood Technology Funds in Santa Fe – both learned about circular genomics at the Comcast event.

Blivin called it “disruptive technology” which caught his attention, especially because it dispelled his misconception that diagnosing depression is a “subjective” matter.

“The idea that you can actually tie it to clear biomarkers to diagnose and then offer a reliable treatment that is best for the patient, with rapid validation based on the body’s response, is very fascinating,” said Blivin the journal. “It can have a huge impact on so many people’s lives.”

A number of individual investors joined the funding round, as did Mountain Group Partners, based in Tennessee, a venture fund focused on early-stage life sciences technology.

‘Circular’ RNA

The company’s breakthrough is based on “circular RNA” that medical professionals only discovered in the last decade. Previously, scientists tried unsuccessfully to collect linear strands of RNA for analysis in hopes of measuring the specific genes and proteins from these RNA samples to diagnose what happens in people with brain-related disorders, said Hafez, who is now President of Circular Genomics is and head of clinical operations.

The Bioscience Center in Uptown Albuquerque is currently home to Circular Genomics, which has developed a new RNA-based diagnostic tool to help doctors diagnose and treat depression and other mental illnesses. (Roberto E. Rosales / )

The problem with linear RNA is that enzymes in the blood cling to the ends of the RNA strands and quickly chew their way inward, quickly breaking down the strands and making them nearly impossible to isolate for analysis, Hafez said.

“Because RNA breaks down so quickly, you couldn’t easily look at the genes that are expressed in the brain or blood,” Hafez told the Journal.

In contrast, circular RNA is in the shape of a donut with no ends for enzymes to attach, making the circular strands stable for much longer.

“Circular RNA is naturally expressed in the body and avoids the rapid breakdown that is common with linear RNA,” said Hafez. “… Because it remains stable for much longer, we can detect it and record it in blood samples to measure the genes and proteins associated with signaling pathways associated with depression and other psychiatric illnesses.”

This is the basis for the diagnostic technology of Circular Genomics.

“RNA is a good messenger of what is going on in a person’s body, but it (linear RNA) breaks down too quickly,” Mellios said. “CircRNA offers a stable biomarker for a person’s current state of health.”

Timeline-to-market

The company has developed circular RNA diagnostic tools with predictive algorithms that can indicate the best treatment for individuals, Hafez said. The company is currently working on regulatory approval that will allow medical providers to submit blood samples for analysis, the results of which can guide treatment options.

It could take about two years to start commercial operations, Hafez said. The company is seeking Clinical Laboratory Improvement, or CLIA, certification that would enable it to perform in-house diagnostics for medical providers. At the same time, approval by the US Food and Drug Administration is sought. It takes longer, but once it is done, third-party laboratories can analyze blood samples for doctors using Circular Genomics’ product.

The new investment will enable the company to move from its current offices in the Bioscience Center in Uptown Albuquerque to an independent laboratory facility early next year where it will continue clinical analysis and regulatory approval studies. Hafez expects to hire 10 new employees in 2022.

The company will initially focus on diagnosing depression and later on diagnosing other brain-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s, PTSD and bipolar disorder.

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