Brazilian high-tech startup develops molecule that promotes muscle mass growth14 de julho de 2020
By Elton Alisson | FAPESP Innovative R&D – While pursuing research interests as graduate students at the University of São Paulo’s Biomedical Sciences Institute (ICB-USP) in Brazil, William José da Silva and Lucas Ariel Rocha discovered a molecule based on microRNAs that promoted muscle mass growth and muscle regeneration in mice. MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are a class of non-coding RNAs that play important roles in regulating gene expression.
The researchers saw a business opportunity and founded a startup called miRScience Therapeutics. They submitted a project in response to a call for proposals issued by the FAPESP Innovative Research in Small Business (PIPE) Program, planning to evaluate the molecule’s technological and commercial feasibility in the treatment of diseases and syndromes involving loss of muscle mass.
“Our first hypothesis was that the molecule could be used to treat cancer-induced cachexia, which is characterized by severe depletion of skeletal muscle. It can cause death in 20% of patients. Currently, there is no treatment for it,” Silva said.
The project was approved by PIPE-FAPESP and the researchers took the PIPE High-Tech Entrepreneurial Training Program (read more about the program at agencia.fapesp.br/23097). However, they discovered from interviews with oncologists that cachexia was not a core issue.
“The oncologists were more interested in treating the tumor than cancer-induced cachexia, for which there is no specific treatment or even a coherent definition,” Silva said.
Thanks to the program’s online classes and mentors, as well as other interviews, they identified five promising commercial opportunities for the molecule. These included regenerative medicine, which aims to restore damaged tissue and organs and treat muscle mass loss due to aging; sports medicine; and veterinary medicine, where the molecule could be used to treat pets and livestock requiring muscle regeneration or growth.
In agriculture, the idea is to use the molecule to promote weight gain in cattle, pigs and poultry so as to lower production cost, according to Silva.
“Our participation in the course helped us extend our range of applications for the molecule to include muscle improvement and taught us the lesson that we should always be looking for the ideal customer,” he said.
Product-market fit (being in the right market with a product that can satisfy that market) is one of the main goals of the training program, which has been offered by PIPE-FAPESP since 2016 and has been taken by representatives of 315 high growth potential startups in several different segments.
“It’s called a training program but it’s more akin to an experience of total immersion in entrepreneurship, where researchers with projects supported by PIPE phases one and two have a chance to interact with potential users, customers and partners in developing their technologies,” said Marcelo Nakagawa, a member of FAPESP’s Research for Innovation Area Panel and one of the coordinators of the program.
Participants in the program are encouraged to interview 100 prospective customers and users of the technology they are developing. The latest edition, which was the 15th, ended on June 30 and was attended by representatives of 21 startups, who interviewed 2,038 people. This corresponded to a record average of 97 interviews per team.
“We had to make a minor change to the structure of the course, which was entirely online because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it was a great success,” said Flavio Grynszpan, also a member of FAPESP’s Research for Innovation Area Panel and co-coordinator of the program. “We were able to adapt the course to a reality that’s far from ideal since face-to-face activities are key to facilitating integration among the teams.”
FAPESP expects the training program to increase the chances of commercial success for the projects it supports via PIPE, according to Luiz Eugênio Mello, the Foundation’s Scientific Director. “When the startups we support are successful, so are we,” he said. “We expect entrepreneurs to be better equipped as they go forward thanks to what they learn during the training program.”