RNA interference (RNAi) has the potential to treat numerous diseases, but its major hurdle – crossing the cell membrane – has stumped scientists for years. Solstice Biologics has licensed a technology developed at UC San Diego that uses a small, cell-permeable “prodrug” that will allow RNAi and MicroRNA to enter many different cell types and attack diseases at the genetic level.
Solstice Biologics was co-founded in 2012 by Steven Dowdy, Ph.D., Professor of Cellular and Molecular Medicine at UCSD School of Medicine. Dowdy and his research team modified the surface of an RNAi molecule to hide it from the immune system – and from possible destruction – until it reaches its target. The prodrug changes into an RNAi once it enters the cell, where its therapeutic work begins.
While other researchers have tried to deliver RNAi with larger vehicles, the Solstice technology uses short, double-stranded RNAi and MicroRNA. The more versatile pro-drug, called RiboNucleic Neutrals (RNNs), can cross into different cell types and tissues.
Billions of dollars have already been spent on RNAi-based therapy because of its potential to treat disease through genetics. Less than 10 percent of the human genome is accessible to current drug technologies. RNAi offers the promise of accessing the remaining 90 percent.
“We think this technology will generate therapeutics for patients who have few options now, like people with orphan diseases,” said Solstice co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer Curt Bradshaw, Ph.D. “So we’re looking at diseases that are completely intractable to other methods of treatment.”
Dowdy received initial funding from Howard Hughes Medical Center (HHMI). In January 2013, Solstice raised $18 million in Series A funding from Aeris Capital and venBio. The San Diego-based company now employs 20 people in its research laboratory, 18 of them scientists. Bryan Meade, Ph.D., an HHMI Postdoctoral Researcher who worked on the technology as Dowdy’s graduate student, continues to play a leading role.
In early 2014, Solstice was chosen by the editors of Nature Biotechnology as one of the journal’s “Academic Spinouts of 2013,” a list of “ten of the best-funded startups that are pursuing ground-breaking science.” The firm was given high marks for “developing a new solution to an old problem … [that] should reduce the cost and complexity of small-interfering RNA (siRNA) drug development.”
In June 2014, Solstice named Lou Tartaglia, Ph.D., its new Chief Executive Officer and President. A UC Berkeley-trained biochemist, Tartaglia had previously been a partner at the high-profile venture group Third Rock Ventures, where, as reported in Xconomy, “he spent seven years sorting through thousands of new ideas to help start a handful of companies based on cutting-edge science. That experience certainly helped him with his decision to join Solstice.”
The firm also appointed a new Chief Financial Officer, John Borgeson, who has worked with Solstice Executive Chairman Corey Goodman at Pfizer and at venBio.
Because RNAi therapy is so versatile, Solstice is contemplating all the possibilities for its prodrug approach. Co-founder Bradshaw describes this pre-clinical phase as “an embarrassment of riches. … It’s hard to whittle the list [of diseases] down.”
Solstice is also looking at the therapy’s potential in terms of market value. Helping patients is the ultimate goal, but first, the company must work with pharmaceutical companies, business consultants, and others who understand the process, according to Bradshaw.
“A product’s timeline is pretty long,” he explained. “It could be 10 or 15 years before it’s a drug that’s ready to be sold.”
Solstice Biologics, LLC
9535 Waples Street, Suite 100, San Diego, CA 92121
Lou Tartaglia, Ph.D. – President, CEO
Curt Bradshaw, Ph.D. – Co-Founder, Chief Scientific Officer and Director
Steve Dowdy, Ph.D
Professor of Cellular and Molecular Medicine
UC San Diego School of Medicine