MDI Biological Laboratory

A Busy First Year at MDI Bioscience, Capped by Support from Capitol Hill

  • January 13, 2023

It’s been almost a year since MDIBL announced the formation of MDI Bioscience, a new Laboratory initiative focused on using non-mammalian models for human health, such as zebrafish and C. elegans roundworms, in early-stage drug discovery and development.

Jim Strickland was hired at the end of 2021, bringing a leader experienced with pharmaceutical startups to the enterprise. He set out to tap into faculty expertise to inform the creation of new tools for designing and testing promising therapies.

Over the course of  2022, he received $280,000 from the Maine Technology Institute for renovation of the historic Halsey Laboratory into a secure, state-of-the-art facility for drug discovery and high-throughput screening in zebrafish.

And in late December Congress passed an omnibus spending measure that included $600,000 for the effort, thanks to work by Strickland and other Laboratory leaders, as well as Maine’s Congressional delegation.

Benchmarks of 2022

  • First staff hired: Sadie Kuhn, a summer fellow at MDIBL and recent Colby College graduate was hired as the full-time research coordinator for MDI Bioscience. She majored in biology with a concentration in neuroscience. She also captained the Colby women’s hockey team.
  • Lab renovated: The Halsey laboratory’s roughly 1,000 square foot structure was renovated and repurposed to include facilities to care for up to 1,500 zebrafish, a drug-discovery lab and space for high-throughput microscopy.
  • Research pathways opened: A pilot study with Dr. Muneer Hasham and the Patient Derived Xenograft (PDX) Research and Development (R&D) Core at The Jackson Laboratory to explore the growth of patient-specific cancer cell in zebrafish avatars.
  • Computational pharmacology: A data science collaboration was initiated with Fractal Therapeutics with the goal of using computational methods for improving the efficiency and predictivity of MDI Bioscience’s assays.
  • Initial screens: MDI Bioscience conducted preliminary drug screening studies to evaluate whether a selection of drugs are able to restore normal kidney function in zebrafish.

MDI Bioscience is creating excitement in the Bar Harbor scientific community because it holds promise for amplifying the role non-traditional animals can play in discovering and testing promising drugs and therapies, and getting them more quickly into the hands of doctors and patients.

The genomes of zebrafish and C. elegans have much in common with the human genome. Because they are transparent, they are ideal for high-throughput, in vivo microscopy and AI-assisted analysis.

And because they have short lifespans, they offer exciting opportunities to examine therapies that address the hallmarks of aging, or the consequences of gene-level interventions in heterogeneous populations.

These animals can anchor a new kind of cost-effective, efficient discovery system that bridges the gap between cell culture and the rest of the drug-approval continuum, such as experiments with mammals like mice and rats to human clinical trials.

“MDI Bioscience leverages MDIBL’s expertise with developing disease models and toxicity assays in zebrafish to evaluate the efficacy and safety of drugs,” Strickland says. “We can use the power of gene editing in whole, in vivo models such as zebrafish to help validate whether a promising compound is binding to its target and eliciting the desired therapeutic effect.”

Improving early-stage screening, he adds, can help to reduce the number of drugs that ultimately fail in late-stage clinical development, potentially saving hundreds of millions of dollars that otherwise would be invested.