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Cell Stickiness Behind Bozeman Biotech Firm

By Annette

For parents, the jingle "If it doesn't stick, it won't make you sick" means the kids haven't left any disgusting jelly smears on door handles or light switches.

But to scientists at Bozeman-based LigoCyte Pharmaceuticals, Inc., that unofficial motto explains the company's novel approach to finding new treatments and vaccines for diseases such as arthritis, candidiasis and asthma.

Here's the approach: Cells have molecules on their surfaces that stick like Velcro to a corresponding molecule on another cell. Called bioadhesion, this stickiness normally is a good thing. Without it, wounds wouldn't heal and immune systems wouldn't fend off hostile bacteria, for example.

But too much stickiness among the cells in the immune system leads to inflammation and the kind of tissue damage that occurs after strokes and heart attacks. In addition, bacteria, fungi, viruses and other foreigners use stickiness to invade the body and cause infections. But if they can't stick, well, just remember the motto.

"Infectious organisms have evolved in parallel with humans, so they've 'broken' man's communication code for cells trafficking inside the body and learned how to set up shop," explained company president and CEO Mike McCue.

The potential U.S. market for treating diseases in which cell stickiness plays role is estimated at about $200 billion a year, McCue said.

The six-year-old company is located in the Advanced Technology Park adjacent to the MSU campus. Its unique approach to disease stems from bioadhesion studies that MSU veterinary molecular biologist Mark Jutila and LigoCyte vice president for research Robert Bargatze began while at Stanford University.

The company has a number of other connections to MSU as well. One of its primary research thrusts--a treatment for the potentially life-threatening fungal disease called candidiasis--stems from the work of MSU microbiologist Jim Cutler. McCue predicts the drug may be in clinical trials by 2002. (Ligocyte won't do the trials because they're so costly. Instead, the company's strategy is to do the early development then find corporate partners to do clinical trials, manufacturing and marketing. Overall, it takes about $500 million to get a new drug to market, McCue said.)

Another is an anti-inflammatory substance discovered by Jutila called EL-246. The substance holds promise for treating inflammation stemming from heart attacks, strokes and autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.

The company also has begun working with MSU biochemistry professor Paul Grieco, who studies natural products that may have medicinal properties, as well as MSU scientists studying brucellosis and developing better methods of detecting the bacteria that cause food and water poisoning.

Robert Bargatze of LigoCyte Pharmaceuticals, Inc., holds a test apparatus.
A collaboration with MSU veterinary scientist David Pascual on a unique vaccine technology is under way. This technology would induce a strong and lasting immune response , said McCue.

Of the companies 20 employees, all but five have degrees from MSU. McCue predicts the number of employees will double in the next year. Each year a number of undergraduates in MSU's rapidly growing biotechnology program complete internships with the company as well.

"The biotech graduates' level of preparedness is remarkable," McCue said. "They are taught how to think, which shows that the foundation of their education is very solid."

Connections like these make the relationship a model for how universities and the private sector can work together for the benefit of both.

"Certainly MSU is a big, big factor in why we're here," McCue said. "We want to nurture this relationship so it continues."

"LigoCyte is a model of how universities and the private sector can interact," echoed Becky Mahurin, MSU director of technology transfer. "It's very exciting for us to see what can happen when we have such a close match between research the university has to offer and the needs of a growing company."

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