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UAF Licenses Drugs Toward Human Hibernation

A researcher at UAF has patented a drug combination that causes an artificial state of hibernation. It prevents some of the negative effects of cold therapies doctors use on heart, brain and spinal chord injuries. Last week the university licensed her new biotech company work on delivering it to the medical field.

Observing Alaska’s amazing hibernating animals was how Dr. Kelly Drew eventually got to this drug combination. It started when another scientist, biologist Brian Barnes, had her hold a hibernating Arctic Ground Squirrel.

“You see this animal in this state of consciousness that we can’t appreciate or comprehend, right? So I was really interested in how the brain is functioning while they are hibernating.”

Drew was already an expert in how drugs affect human brains – a neuropharmacologist. Studying hibernating animal brains made her think of how hibernation might work for humans. She and her colleagues worked on drugs to induce hibernation in animals, hoping to find something that could work for humans. This new drug combination makes that one step closer.

“So it’s that very mechanism that we have developed for use in humans. It’s called Therapeutic Hypothermia or Target Temperature Management.”

Cooling is now widely practiced in hospitals. It reduces inflammation. Right now it is the standard of care after cardiac arrest.

And it gives medical doctors a little more time for emergency surgeries for heart, brain and spinal cord injuries. But they are challenged by the patients’ natural shivering.

“What happens is that they shiver, and they fight it.”

Shivering is a human defense to cold. But it burns up energy and warms the body back up.

“This cold defense response increases the metabolism and counters the benefits of being cold. So, what this drug does – it targets that same area that hibernating animals use to get cold, and it turns off the cold defense response.”

So, this new drug combination lets patients stay cold without shivering, while doctors work to save their lives.

Drew had the first breakthrough on the drug in 2011, and it has implications for saving soldiers injured on the battlefield and helping babies survive a condition called neonatal hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE).

“We think of temperature as a vital sign. But it’s also a physiological effector. It affects a lot of processes in the body, that if you can manipulate it, you can manipulate those processes, such as inflammation.”

The drug combination is now called BCP-019. But to get it tested for safety and effectiveness, approved by the FDA and into doctors’ hands is not that easy.

“It’s technology that my lab developed here at UAF, so UAF owns that patent. But UAF doesn’t have the infrastructure or the mission to commercialize it.”

So, Drew founded her own bio-tech company to partner with the University. She is working with Dr. Bernard W. Laughlin, DO, and lots of student researchers. The little company is called Be Cool Pharmaceutics LLC.

Last week the university licensed Be Cool to develop BCP-019 for delivery to the medical field. If it gets marketed, the University will get a percentage of the royalties.

For now, the company is looking for investors. It has already received an award from the Small Business Administration to start up.

And the discoveries about hibernation at UAF have attracted attention from NASA because there might be implications for space travel. But that’s another story.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks owns the patent (14/191,515)