NC IDEA announces six North Carolina startups as spring grant winners and recipients of a collective $300,000. This story is part of a series of profiles on the winners.
As legend has it, the Trojan war ended after the Athenians faked out the Trojans by pretending to retreat and then sending a hollow wooden horse filled with Greek soldiers to their enemies as a “gift from the gods”.
A lone soldier, Sinon, guided the horse behind the Athenian gates, and convinced the Trojans to accept the ‘gift’. That night, he opened the horse’s hidden doors, and the Greek soldiers breached the city from within. The strategy was effective—the Greeks won the 10-year war and reclaimed their lands.
SiNON Therapeutics, named after that famous Greek soldier, has a strategy similar to the Athenians’. It uses a seemingly innocent device to transport weapons through a previously impenetrable barrier. If successful, SiNON could revolutionize the pharmaceutical industry and the treatments available for neurological diseases.
The technology—a patented nanoparticle called a carbon dot—encapsulates drugs that are typically blocked by what is called the “blood brain barrier” (BBB) from reaching the section of the brain diseases like Alzheimer’s attack. The carbon dot acts as a trojan horse of sorts, shepherding the medicine across the barrier to reach its destination more efficiently and safely than any other method discovered to date.
It’s the material’s potential impact on the life science industry and the strong leadership of young inventor Afreen Allam that persuaded NC IDEA to award a grant of up to $50,000 last week. One of just six companies to be named as recipients in the 23rd grant cycle, SiNON beat out 156 other applicants.
“Virtually every pharma company out there has the potential to be a customer of hers,” says NC IDEA President and CEO Thom Ruhe. The grant review team was impressed at her foresight to secure a patent while still in college.
Veering off the Medical School Path
With plans to attend medical school once graduating with a double major in micro-biology and chemistry at NC State in 2010, Allam began to volunteer at the Duke Cancer Center to gain experience. After her first day, she didn’t think she’d last more than two weeks—the suffering and death she witnessed was unlike anything she had been exposed to before and shook her.
But she soon formed special bonds with the patients, sticking it out those two weeks and then seven more years.
It wasn’t just the death that bothered Allam—she was equally distraught over the pain the patients suffered as a result of the medications fighting their cancers. Chemotherapy and radiation are notoriously hard on the bodies of cancer patients, a result of the high doses of the chemicals necessary to kill the cancers.
Allam was inspired to devise a way to deliver medications that could combat disease and also increase the quality of life of sick patients. She began developing her solution while studying abroad in India and working on an honor’s program requirement to develop a research project from start to finish. Working with Dr. S. Sarkar, the head of the chemistry department at the Indian Institute of Technology, she chose to focus on delivering drugs safely to the pancreas for pancreatic cancer patients.
That was the first iteration of the carbon dot.
When she returned to the states, her father, then a senior executive IT consultant at IBM with a background in organic chemistry, recognized the novelty of her project and encouraged her to file for a patent. Despite being just 20 years old, she followed his advice and continued working part-time until she graduated knowing that SiNON was “what I want to devote my time to.”
It was also shortly after her return that she recognized the market for pancreatic cancer solutions was already saturated with solutions so she pivoted to focus on the brain, adapting her technology to breach the BBB in a safe manner.
Post-graduation Allam decided to skip medical school and run her company full-time instead. But after a few years, she realized she lacked the business acumen to adequately run the company. So she headed back to school, this time at Duke, and earned her MBA through its executive MBA program.
Passing through the Trojan Gates
The BBB is a membrane present in the brain that only allows certain things to pass into the brain’s bloodstream. Much like a president’s secretary or soldier guarding a king, it acts as the last line of defense matter encounters before penetrating the brain’s blood and only allows certain things to pass. Things like water, glucose and caffeine are permitted while toxins, bacteria and other nefarious objects are blocked from entering the brain.
Because most drugs that seek to pass the BBB to treat brain diseases are recognized as nefarious, the drugs have to be administered in very high, nearly toxic levels to force passage through the barrier. Other methods include manually injecting medicines beyond the barrier with needles, high-intensity focused ultrasounds (HIFU) and osmosis.
In contrast, Allam’s solution is made of carbon, an element that comprises at least 18 percent of the human body. Because carbon is naturally found in the body, the dots don’t break, alter or damage the BBB as they pass through it.
Allam compares the dots to Russian dolls, just in a much smaller form. There are layers and layers of carbon encapsulating carbon and in the middle is a hollow sphere where the drug can be housed. And since the drugs are housed in the carbon and can pass safely through the BBB, they can be administered in lower, less toxic doses. Once administered, the carbon dot can also be tracked and followed as it moves throughout the body to ensure it arrives at its target destination.
So far, Allam has successfully tested encapsulating two types of Alzheimer’s drugs and two other drug types. They cleared toxicity studies in mice, showing the dot itself is non-toxic. The company’s next step is to test the efficacy of releasing the drugs once the carbon dot passes the BBB in mice.
To move forward with pre-clinical trials, Allam needs funding, and lots of it. She’ll need $450,000 to cover the efficacy release studies and legal patent work. But winning the NC IDEA grant will help Allam prepare for federal grant applications by helping cover the legal work required to ensure all the patents are air-tight. She also plans to use the funds to attend conferences and network with funders and peers in anticipation of raising a Series A round.
She’s already started growing awareness about her company and its potential in the Triangle. In addition to the NC IDEA award, she won the Duke Startup Challenge back in 2015, was a showcase company at the CED Life Science Conference, and is a finalist in the local round of the InnovateHER pitch competition that will be held at Cindy Whitehead’s Pinkubator on 5/31. If she wins, she’ll go on to pitch again at the semi-final round of the competition.
She’s also a member of the newest cohort of SoarTriangle, an NC IDEA program helping female founders raise capital.
Allam is confident she’ll raise what she needs to make SiNON a reality, but regardless of the company’s future, she’ll continue her quest to make drugs safer, more effective and less painful for patients like those she met years ago as a volunteer.