Austin biotech company Mirna grabs $10.3M grant, eyes more funding

2010 is proving to be a banner year for Austin biotech company Mirna Therapeutics Inc.

On June 18, Mirna received a nearly $10.3 million research grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas. Mirna’s grant was among $142 million in grants awarded for cancer research and prevention programs across the state. Texas voters authorized establishment of the nonprofit cancer initiative in 2007.

Mirna was the largest recipient of the grants handed out to Austin companies. Other research grants went to Apollo Endosurgery Inc. ($5 million) and Rules-Based Medicine Inc. ($3 million).

The Mirna grant comes on the heels of a $5 million award given in December by the Texas Emerging Technology Fund. The fund was created to help Texas businesses accelerate new products and services.

And more good funding news is on the horizon. Dr. Paul Lammers (photo), president and CEO of Mirna, says the company—with help from an investment advisory firm—is poised to secure a private venture capital investment in the next few months.

“Drug development is a long and very expensive process,” Lammers says, “and at Mirna we realize that we may need to raise tens of millions of dollars over the next few years … .”

The grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas will propel the company’s pipeline of microRNA compounds toward clinical trials with cancer patients, Lammers says.

Fighting cancer

Mirna is developing a cancer treatment that introduces synthetic microRNA into tumors to trigger their death. Research shows this therapy has reduced or eliminated cancerous tumors in mice. Mirna’s partners in development of the anti-cancer therapy are the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

One-third of all human genes are thought to be controlled by microRNAs. RNA stands for ribonucleic acid; it helps DNA (known as the “building block of life”) copy and express genes. MicroRNA therapies are aimed at halting the disease process.

So far, Mirna has produced six promising product candidates, and two have been pinpointed as the company’s lead products. However, Mirna remains in the early stages of product development, with chemistry work, toxicity studies and clinical trials among the future steps.

Currently, Mirna zeroes in on cancer, including forms that affect the lungs and the prostate. But the company has identified key microRNAs that play key roles in other diseases, such as cardiovascular and autoimmune, and eventually intends to develop therapies in those areas, Lammers says.

Looking back, looking forward

Mirna has eight full-time employees. It shaves expenses by sharing finance, legal, human resources, information technology and facilities services with its parent company, Austin-based Asuragen Inc. Mirna and Asuragen occupy offices in the same building.

Lammers says Mirna expects to add 12 to 16 jobs over the next two to three years, depending on the company’s success with preclinical and clinical testing.

Mirna traces its roots to Austin biotech company Ambion Inc. At Ambion, Mirna’s microRNA therapeutic research and development program began in 2002. Four years later, part of Ambion’s business was sold to Applied Biosystems Inc. (since folded into Life Technologies Corp.), and another part that included the microRNA program was “spun out” to form Asuragen.

In 2007, Asuragen set up Mirna as a wholly owned subsidiary with a sole focus on microRNA-based therapeutics. Mirna maintains exclusive access to all of Asuragen’s intellectual property related to therapeutics. At the time, Mirna received about $5.5 million in seed funding from Asuragen. Mirna was spun off from Asuragen in 2009.

Like other small biotech companies, Mirna faces the challenge of attracting and retaining talent.

“However, given the current consolidation in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry, many experienced professionals have become available on the job market,” Lammers says. “We hope to benefit from that sudden surplus in the market and to attract talented individuals to Mirna and to Austin.”

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