Researchers at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory in Bar Harbor may have discovered how a drug derived from a molecule found in dogfish sharks could someday help people recover from heart attacks and heart disease.
Dr. Viravuth Yin, the lead researcher from MDI, said a series of coincidences, combined with years of research on zebrafish and mice, led to the breakthrough.
MDI secured a patent from the U.S. Patent Office in November and last week its research was published in a scholarly journal npj Regenerative Medicine.
The next step is obtaining about $2 million in funding to see if the research that has been done in zebrafish and mice can be replicated in pigs. The lab has an application pending with the National Institutes of Health for the pig research and is seeking venture capital funding, Yin said.
If all goes well, human clinical trials for the drug could begin in about five years. The drug could be on the market in 10-20 years, if research proves fruitful, Yin said.
Zebrafish share about 70 percent of the same genes as humans, and have a strong ability to regenerate.
“Any discovery we make in the zebrafish has a strong chance to being relevant to human health,” Yin said.
He said an intern at MDI Biological Laboratory noticed a few years ago that MSI-1436, a drug made from a molecule found in the dogfish shark, was causing the zebrafish to regenerate much faster than normal.
A series of tests ensued, including an improvement in zebrafish appendage regeneration by 200-300 percent with MSI-1436. One of the key experiments involved injecting MSI-1436 into the bloodstream of the zebrafish to see if it would promote regenerating tissues in a damaged zebrafish heart. In every experiment, it did.
“I designed numerous experiments to prove myself wrong,” Yin said. “But the results always held up.”
The results also were promising when the drug was tested in mice, leading to the patent and publication in npj Regenerative Medicine.
The drug could prove beneficial to people who have had heart attacks or heart disease. When a person has a heart attack, for instance, scar tissue can build up in the damaged heart, causing it to become less efficient at distributing blood to the rest of the body. That can cause a whole host of other health problems, Yin said.
If the drug works, the scar tissue instead could be regenerated back into healthy tissue, improving outcomes for the lives of millions, Yin said. Cardiovascular disease kills 17.5 million worldwide annually, according to the World Health Organization.
A series of unusual coincidences led to Yin’s discovery, said Dr. Michael Zasloff, a scientist and surgeon at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C.
Zasloff told the Press Herald he was giving a speech to MDI scientists in the early 1990s when one of them mentioned the dogfish shark.
“They said, ‘You know, the dogfish shark is an amazing animal,’ ” Zasloff said.
That piqued his interest, he said, and led him to study dogfish sharks and to the discovery of the molecule in 1993. After many years of research, the molecule was developed into the drug MSI-1436, which was then being studied for its potential to treat diabetes. When the company that was studying the drug for diabetes research went out of business a few years ago, Zasloff said he remembered MDI and gave them a call. He suggested they might want to study MSI-1436 to see if it had any regenerative properties.
“It was nothing more than a hunch, a whim,” said Zasloff, who collaborated with Yin on the research.
Zasloff said the fact that the research is beginning to bear fruit more than 20 years after his initial research is “absolutely remarkable.”
“This is an extraordinary discovery by Dr. Yin,” Zasloff said. “It was serendipity.”
To assist with the research and to raise money for developing the drug, Yin and Dr. Kevin Strange, president of MDI Biological Laboratory, started up the Novo Biosciences company a few years ago.
Strange said the fact that MSI-1436 already has been used in human clinical trials for the diabetes drug could help speed up the process.
“The path from laboratory bench to patient bedside can be long and difficult,” Strange said in a prepared statement. “But the fact that MSI-1436 has been shown to be safe for use in humans shaves years off the drug development process.”