Dr. Jergens, Dr. Mochel and Dr. Allenspach
From left are Al Jergens, Jonathan Mochel and Karin Allenspach-Jorn of the ISU College of Veterinary Medicine. Photo by Christopher Gannon.

New Funding Reality

Old hat. That’s how the trio of Dr. Karin Allenspach, Dr. Jonathan Mochel and Dr. Al Jergens would describe the process of writing research grants.

“You write the grant, submit it and then don’t worry if you never hear back from the proposal,” said Allenspach, professor of veterinary clinical sciences. “It’s not painless but we’ve all done this for years.”

The three are still writing grants but their start-up entity has entered a whole new world when it comes to securing new funding for their company. 3D Health Solutions, Inc., is a start-up entity that seeks to expand upon and commercialize three-dimensional in vitro canine cell cultures for therapeutic drug screening purposes.

Jergens, professor of veterinary clinical sciences, refers to it as being thrown into the “shark tank,” the popular entrepreneurial-themed reality show on ABC.

And so far, 3D Health Solutions has proven to be able to get a handle on this new funding reality. Earlier this academic year, the firm received first place and $40,000 in the 15th Annual John Pappajohn Iowa Entrepreneurial Venture Competition.

Then in February, 3D Health Solutions was the winner of the 6th Annual Biotech Showcase, a bioscience pitch competition sponsored by the Iowa Biotechnology Association.

In the Pappajohn competition, 3D Health Solutions had to make a 20-minute pitch to a review board. It’s quite the change from submitting a grant proposal and getting a yes or no via a letter.

“For that competition we had to do multiple rounds of applications and pitches,” said Mochel, associate professor of biomedical sciences and veterinary diagnostic and production animal medicine. “As opposed to a typical grant application, you have to also include the business side of your model in your presentation.

“But what I like about these presentations is that you actually have a chance to defend your proposal. The problem isn’t the presentation but rather the knowledge of what non-scientific items you need to submit.”

“Venture capitalists are looking for the best idea and what would provide the higher return on investment fast,” Allenspach said.

So, what has made 3D Health Solutions the best idea in the minds of these review boards?

The company’s overall objective is to provide the veterinary and human drug pharmaceutical industry with assays on multi-species organoid cell lines from different species and microfluidic techniques for drug absorption, efficacy and safety screening that will deliver superior predictability than current in vitro systems.

Allenspach, Jergens and Mochel feel their idea will dramatically reduce the cost and time of approving human drugs. The current cost per approved drug is estimated at more than $1.5 billion each. That includes pre-clinical drug discovery and testing on rodent- and non-rodent models to determine whether the compound can be taken into human clinical trials.

Even then, 95% of all drugs developed ultimately fail to enter the consumer marketplace.

3D Health Solutions has a new approach in testing on canine intestinal organoids. This is expected to significantly improve the predictability of in vitro systems currently used for pre-clinical drug research and allow for early selection of the most-promising drug candidates. It will also reduce the number of live animal studies and their associated costs while accelerating the transition from pre-clinical research to early drug development.

The company has also been developing a bioarchive of 3D organoids for investigative purposes which is another strategic advantage in the biomedical research marketplace.

“We believe we have come up with real world ideas to make it possible to get drugs made cheaper and quicker,” Allenspach said.

Dogs, Jergens says, are the ideal model for a number of reasons. Chief among them is that dogs have a number of spontaneous developing diseases similar to humans.

“The dog is an excellent model,” Jergens said, “and not only can cost be reduced, but we can speed up discovery by using dog organoids instead of rodents in drug testing.”

One way the research team is already doing that is through their investigation of canine bladder cancer to produce a model for predicting drug responses in human bladder cancer patients. They received the 2020 Margaret B. Barry Cancer Research Program award and $120,000 over two years for the research. Importantly, this research is now advertised as an ongoing clinical trial on the Mayo Clinic website.

The trio thinks the sky is the limit for this type of research and that this will really change the system, which is something most people will connect with.

February 2021