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February 19, 2013

MDI lab launches regenerative tissue spinoff

Photo courtesy of Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory Kevin Strange, lab director at the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory, will serve as CEO for the lab's first spinoff, focused on licensing medicines that can act as catalysts for regenerating human tissue.
Photo couresy of Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory Voot Yin, a regenerative biology researcher at the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory, will serve as chief scientific officer for the lab's first spinoff, called Novo Biosciences Inc.

The Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory has spun off the first company in its 115-year history, led by lab director Kevin Strange and regenerative biology researcher Voot Yin.

Strange told Mainebiz that the new company, Novo Biosciences Inc., will look at the therapeutic potential of drugs that speed tissue healing and stimulate the regeneration of lost and damaged body parts. Novo will start by studying an experimental drug that has been shown to double the regrowth rate of tissue after amputation using a zebrafish. The hope is that one day this work will translate to humans.

"They have a tremendous capacity to replace and regenerate just about any organ," Strange said of zebrafish. "And the zebrafish doesn't use any special genes to regrow body parts. It uses the same genes we do."

He said humans and other mammals currently have limited abilities to regrow damaged parts, but learning more about why zebrafish, salamanders and other lower animals can do this might one day help scientists devise drugs to stimulate similar pathways in humans.

He added that the company will be important for Maine's economic growth, and represents the kind of scientific progress President Obama mentioned in his recent State of the Union address, when the president pointed to advances in drugs to regenerate damaged organs.

Novo will be run out of MDIBL in Salisbury Cove and will employ three to four research technicians initially. Strange serves as CEO and Yin is chief scientific officer. The company has one small private investment to cover early business expenses. Strange said Novo is looking to raise $300,000 to $400,000 from venture capitalists and grants to better understand the experimental drug.

MDIBL will license the drug candidate, if it proves promising, rather than developing it by doing costly clinical trials itself. Such licenses will represent a new revenue path for the lab, Strange said. Royalties from Novo will go to MDIBL's research and education programs.

Yin, an assistant professor at MDIBL, discovered the fast growth effects of the experimental drug on regenerating an amputated zebrafish fin.

"We're learning which genes and genetic pathways [zebrafish and other animals] use to grow new limbs and repair their hearts and other organs," explained Yin. "We now know that humans and zebrafish share these same genes. What we want to learn is why human regeneration mechanisms work so poorly." He said Novo will help develop drug candidates that can stimulate and reactivate these mechanisms in humans.

The drug candidate was derived from a dogfish shark, but MDIBL would not reveal which part of the shark is being used or the name of the chemical compound that is being studied. Yin said the lab got the compound from a colleague at a company that wanted to have it tested for its regeneration abilities. The company had tested the compound in a different use, so it already has passed toxicity tests, according to lab director Strange.

MDIBL's board of trustees unanimously approved the company's formation earlier this month. The names of the company's board of directors were not available at press time.

Lori Valigra, a writer based in Harrison, can be reached at

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