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March 22, 2017

Bar Harbor labs make advances with major diseases

Courtesy / MDI Biological Laboratory
Courtesy / MDI Biological Laboratory
MDI Biological Laboratory researcher Voot Yin, shown here with the zebrafish he studies, said a potential drug candidate from the lab and its spinout company Novo Biosciences could be a game-changer for patients who have had heart attacks or have heart disease by restoring damaged heart tissue.
Courtesy / The Jackson Laboratory
Jackson Lab research scientist Elise Courtois said colorectal cancers, which are major causes of death among Americans, can be divided into subgroups based on the cell-type composition of the tumors that in turn could potentially provide oncologists with better information about prognosis and treatment options.

Researchers at The Jackson Laboratory and the MDI Biological Laboratory have separately made recent advances in understanding the basics of two of the leading causes of deaths in the United States, colorectal cancer and heart disease, respectively.

JAX researchers at the Bar Harbor-based lab's Farmington, Conn., genomic research facility and collaborators in Singapore defined the composition of cancerous cells from 11 colorectal tumors and their adjacent noncancerous cells. In a study published in Nature Genetics, they said the discovery could be a key to more targeted diagnosis and treatment of colorectal cancer.

"Using single-cell signatures, colorectal cancers can be further divided into subgroups based on cell-type composition of tumors," JAX research scientist and paper co-author Elise Courtois, said in a statement. "Because each of these subgroups has a different probability, our approach can provide oncologists with better information about prognosis and treatment options."

Of cancers that affect both men and women, colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States and the third most common cancer in men and in women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2013 (the most recent year numbers are available), 136,119 Americans were diagnosed with colorectal cancer, and 51,813 people died. One notable person with who died of the cancer in 2009 was actress Farrah Fawcett, best known for her role in the TV series "Charlie's Angels."

JAX reported $755 million in assets in 2015, its most recent annual report. It told Mainebiz in an article last October that its economic impact in Maine is substantial: in 2015 it employed 1,441 people, generated $202 million in operating revenue, shipped 3 million research mice worldwide, paid more than $105 million in salary and benefits and spent about $20 million on non-operating expenses, much of which went to the lab's 683 Maine vendors based in 106 communities across the state.

Separately, JAX said its Maine Cancer Genomics Initiative has achieved milestones in partnering with clinical institutions and oncology practices in the state having recently opened an office in Augusta at MaineGeneral Medical Center's Harold Alfond Center for Cancer Care. JAX said it intends to collaborate with other locations going forward.

"Maine has one of the highest incidences of cancer in the country, and with approximately 9,000 new cancer cases each year in our state, addressing treatment in Maine is of the utmost importance, JAX MCDI Medical Director Jens Rueter said in a statement.

JAX also is one of the 32 finalists from 100 entries in the 2017 STAT Madness competition, which will honor this year's best innovation in science and medicine by top research institutions and universities. The contest is crowd-sourced, meaning the project with the most votes per round wins. JAX's project focuses on triple negative breast, endometrial and ovarian cancers, some of the most challenging cancers that in the past have been almost impossible to treat.

Taking drugs to heart

Up the road in Bar Harbor, MDIBL and its spinout company, Novo Biosciences, said they have identified a potential drug candidate derived from a shark that may restore heart muscle function after a heart attack. They described how the drug candidate, MSI-1436, regenerates heart muscle tissue in zebrafish and mice in the journal Regenerative Medicine.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States, with about 610,000 people dying of it every year, or one in four U.S. deaths, according to the CDC. Every year about 735,000 Americans have a heart attack. Of these, the CDC noted that 525,000 are a first heart attack and 210,000 happen in people who have already had a heart attack.

Currently, no drug exists to restore heart muscle function after a heart attack, according to MDIBL.

The lab had $29.71 million in assets as of Dec. 31, 2015. It pulled in $7.12 million in government grants and contracts and $1.02 million in contributions and private grants.

"The potential impact of MSI-1436 is enormous," MDIBL scientist and study author Voot Yin said in a statement. "If it shows similar results in humans, it will be a game-changer for patients who suffer a heart attack and/or are living with heart disease."

MDIBL aims to move the drug into clinical trials through Novo Biosciences, which was spun out from the lab in 2013 by Yin and lab President Kevin Strange. Both were Mainebiz 2013 Next award winners. Mainebiz wrote about how the company was the first spinout from the lab in its then 115-year history.

The next step is to test the drug in pigs, as their heart most closely resembles that of humans, according to the lab.

Yin will direct a course called REGEN 2017 about regenerating tissues from July 29 through Aug. 12 at MDIBL's campus.

Separately, the lab inaugurated a 6,560-square-foot Center for Science Entrepreneurship March 12-17 by inviting students from the University of Maine Orono and College of the Atlantic to explore the center.

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